My first year out of college, long before I thought I might do anything so frivolous as write about food, I decided that I would make it my mission to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard, to create kind of a map of the senses that would get me from one end of the street to the other. I worked downtown, as a proofreader at a legal newspaper the Daily Journal, and I took the Pico bus home every night to an apartment above a kosher butcher shop near the corner of Pico and Robertson — I spent a lot of time on Pico. And I came up with a set of rules. I had to go to each restaurant in order. If a restaurant was closed, I could go to the next restaurant on the list, but I had to go back to the first place before I went farther down the street.
If a restaurant was really bad, it was OK to leave after a bite or two. If a place wasn't really a restaurant but, say, a candy store that also happened to sell hot dogs, then I'd try the hot dog. And if a restaurant I had visited had closed down and opened up as something else, then I would have to go and eat at the new incarnation before I pushed farther down the list. I didn't get all the way down Pico that year but I made it pretty far: far enough that I became a fairly adept judge of Salvadoran pupusas, learned the difference between Mexican-Chinese fried rice and Cuban-Chinese fried rice, and learned that soju poured from battered tea kettles was in fact the ideal accompaniment to goat stew. It was the year I learned to eat.
A couple of weeks ago, I wandered into Ham Ji Park for what must have been the 30th time, a battered Korean restaurant that hadn't been around during my long-ago year on Pico, but feels as if it might have been. Like most of the better places in Koreatown, the restaurant has a lengthy menu but in fact specializes in just a couple of things: grilled pork ribs and the pork-neck chowder called gamjatang.
Some people think that Ham Ji Park's gamjatang may be the single-best hangover cure in an area dense in hangover cures. The sputtering-hot soup certainly feels soothing, thick with potatoes, bathed in dusky chile heat. There are probably half a dozen other gamjatang specialists in Koreatown now, and each of them is glorious in their own way, but the density, the soft meat and the piney snap of this version always strikes me as the most pleasant — ranking above even the soup at the restaurant's uptown branch on 6th Street.
The ribs are crisp, beautifully caramelized and not too sweet, a massive pile to be snipped into edible mouthfuls at the table with a pair of scissors, and again slightly resinous. (When the ribs used to appear at Korean barbecue contests, the distinct flavor was instantly identifiable even when the meat was tasted blind.) An order of each is more than enough for four people, even five. There will be soju of course, maybe a lot of it, which goes as well with gamjatang as it did with that goaty yumsotang. And then you stumble outside, bloated and happy, on Pico in the fierce afternoon sun.
Ham Ji Park: 4135 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 733-8333.
This is the first in a series on Pico Boulevard.