Charles Kim still remembers how jarring the cuisine of South Korea was to his taste buds when he first landed there in 1995. Those first dishes he tried looked like the ones he ate growing up in North Korea, yet the flavors, overwhelmed by seasoning and laden with MSG, felt so alien.
Two decades later he and his wife, a fellow North Korean refugee he met in Seoul, run an unassuming restaurant on the western edge of L.A.’s Koreatown where they create the tastes of the homeland they fled.
Yu Hyang Restaurant specializes in soondae, a blood sausage of pork casings stuffed with various ingredients including glass noodles and blood. The Kims’ hearty northern version is chock full of rice and vegetables. The rest of the menu -- taped on an empty aquarium that once housed live crab, a vestige of the restaurant’s evolving list of offerings -- is a hodgepodge of what the Kims do best.
There is sunji-gook, a spicy stew with congealed blood; naejang-tang, a stew of innards; and bubbling red saengtae jjigae, or pollack soup. Also on the menu are spicy chicken feet, but exclamation points that follow the descriptor -- “spicy hot!!!” -- caution that it’s not for the faint of heart.
They are all dishes you can find at South Korean restaurants, but here with subtler flavors. There is less of the overpowering heat and saltiness found at most Korean restaurants. Charles Kim says the North Korean way of seasoning food is garlic and red pepper flakes, and little else. You also won’t find Korean staples such as bibimbap or barbecued beef. There is no English anywhere, so be prepared to point at photos on your smartphone.
The couple does their own cooking, serving, bussing and dishwashing. Charles Kim’s area of expertise is handling the fish. Jung Hee Kim, a former military officer always donning a crocheted white beret, works magic with the sauces that flavor the nakji bokkeum, a stir-fry of octopus served with noodles, and the banchan, the spread of side dishes that is the litmus test of a good Korean restaurant.
The restaurant is a product of a tortuous journey that led the Kims to Los Angeles, by way of Russia and South Korea. After immigrating to the U.S. in 2002, the couple worked at several Korean restaurants where Jung Yi Kim perfected what is known in Korean as son-mat, a special touch with flavors. Opening up Yu Hyang two years ago was the couple’s foray into American capitalism.
The owners nod in recognition at the steady stream of regulars who filter in, most of whom order bottle after bottle of soju to go with their meal on a Wednesday night. The restaurant is minimally adorned -- a string of unlit Christmas lights along the bare white walls, and a TV playing a soccer match for the few middle-aged men dining alone.
Among them you may occasionally find the Southland’s handful of North Korean refugees who live in the midst of L.A.’s vast Korean community. After all, when you’ve fled a communist stronghold, a taste of home is hard to come by.
954 S. Norton Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 934-5677.