Review: Where Jonathan Gold goes for spicy comfort food in Koreatown
A short rib stew, galbi jjim, is a popular order at Sun Nong Dan in Koreatown.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Manager Sarah Jeon works in the kitchen.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Galbi jjim, a short rib stew, is served in a heavy stone pot.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Ox bone soup, right.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Ox bone soup.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Ox bone soup, front, and galbi jjim at top.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Sun Nong Dan in Koreatown.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Exterior view of Sun Nong Dan in Koreatown.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Sun Nong Dan is a specialist in sullungtang, a gentle broth made by boiling beef bones for hours, even days, until the liquid turns a shimmering, pearlescent white that is pretty much the opposite of what French chefs are taught in cooking school. The soup is fatless and softly fragrant, not quite as rich as the soup at fellow specialist Han Bat, but with a sturdy mineral spine and a sensation that you are getting healthier with each sip.
When you first sip sullungtang, you may recoil at its blandness until somebody remembers to tell you that you are supposed to add sea salt and chopped scallions from canisters on the table. A sullungtang restaurant will always have vivid radish pickles on the table; I think it may be a law. If you are so inclined you can dribble some of the tart, spicy brining liquid into the broth, although I never quite think the lovely, beefy version at Sun Nong Dan quite needs it.
You can supplement the dish with sliced brisket, the chewy boiled cartilage from ox knees or soft chunks of beef-cheek meat. You can also get a clear, milder broth or order the meats on a separate, nicely arranged platter. Sullungtang has a reputation as a soothing morning-after restorative, perfect both after an evening of hard drinking and as an early-morning palliative. It is not an accident that the restaurant, whose name derives from a historic name for sullungtang, is open 24 hours each day.
But the throng in that Koreatown strip mall – it’s not there for the ox bone soup. Ox bone soup is not why you stand patiently outside while the excellent noodle shops, stew merchants and seafood parlors that surround it are half-empty. (The hosts seem to take special glee in crossing out the names of supplicants who are not present when their parties are called.) It is not ox-bone soup that New York chef David Chang posts to the zillion followers of his Instagram feed or has been known to eat twice a day when he’s in town.
When you finally straggle into the cramped dining room, possibly 90 minutes after you first scrawled your name on a clipboard, it is not ox bone soup that you see on every table, not ox bone soup at the center of awkward first dates and not ox bone soup that causes everyone to whip out their phones when the food comes.
The waiter will stand patiently at the table while you try to decipher the menu printed on your paper place mat, trying to figure out if a place that offers a choice between boiled ox knee and boiled cow head was really what you had in mind. Because he knows that you are going to settle on the same short rib stew that everybody else in the restaurant is eating, at least everybody under the age of 50. Sullungtang has a definite place in the ecosystem, and you should definitely order a pot to kill time until the main dish comes, but that short rib stew, galbi jjim, is just killer.
So you nibble on the side dishes, which include that turnip kimchi, a rather wonderful plate of bristly Korean chives with chile, and an extremely pungent traditional cabbage kimchi. You will be asked if you’d like white or brown rice: Go for the latter, which is steamed with purple beans.
The one listed appetizer is steamed dumplings, which aren’t bad when the kitchen hasn’t run out of them. The sullungtang is light and nourishing; I suggest the one with brisket unless you really like the chaw of kneecap. A bit of time elapses – the restaurant is temporarily without an alcohol license, although the walls are decorated with ads for beer and soju.
And then the galbi jjim hits the table, hissing and sputtering in a heavy stone pot nearly the size and heft of your emergency spare, a mountain of meat and vegetables rising out of a violently red lagoon of broth, enveloped in its own small universe of steam.
Galbi jjim is one of the standards of refined Korean cuisine, a favorite in the old royal courts and often served on Chuseok, which is more or less the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving. If your grandmother loves you, she might prepare galbi jjim on a Sunday afternoon, and the house will smell wonderful, of meat, soy and sweetness. Galbi jjim is a symbol of prosperity – the cut of beef is not inexpensive, and the dish takes several hours to prepare. I am quite fond of the traditional versions in Koreatown restaurants like Soban and Seongbukdong. Well-made galbi jjim is robust yet delicate, fragile but spoon-tender, flavored with pine nuts and jujube dates.
The galbi jjim at Sun Nong Dan is Hendrix shredding a Bob Dylan song or David Choe slapping paint onto a wall, all the sensations of the dish run through a distortion pedal and cranked up to 10. You’ll be getting the dish extra-spicy (although the waiter will try to talk you out of it), and the amount of garlic that will seep out of your pores afterward is almost surreal. The pot that it comes in is hot enough and thick enough to crisp the cylinders of rice noodles, tteok, put a light char on the meat and keep the scarlet braising sauce bubbling long enough to reduce to a thick, insanely flavorful sludge that both coats and saturates the turned carrots and potatoes.
If you have ordered it with cheese – you have to order it with cheese – a waiter scoops a big handful of white gratings over the top and bazookas it with a torch, creating several small fireballs along the way for effect until the mass breaks down into oozing, char-flecked rivulets that stretch from your chopsticks like pizza goo.
“What kind of cheese is this?’’ I asked.
“Cheese,’’ the waiter replied.
Sun Nong Dan
24 hours of traditional Korean food
3470 W. 6th St., Suite 7, Los Angeles, (213) 365-0303, www.sunnongdan.com
Dumplings, $6.99; soups, $10.99-$13.99; big-pot specialties (which tend to serve two to four), $26.99-$54.99.
Open 24 hours daily. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol (for the moment). Valet parking.
Ox bone soup (sullungtang) with boiled brisket; spicy beef and leek soup; braised short ribs (galbi jjim) with spicy sauce. Also at 927 E. Las Tunas Drive, Suite J, San Gabriel, (626) 286-1234.
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