The details are fuzzy, but I believe I spent most of a recent long weekend in L.A.'s Koreatown.
What I do remember, in between rock 'n' roll and drinking beer from a cooler, is making my way into the vibrant neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles on several occasions in search of food. Not hard to find, given the neighborhood's dizzying array of lunch and dinner restaurants, 24-hour spots, anju bars, and snack-offering norebangs (karaoke bars).
I gorged myself on dreamy Korean eats like lettuce leaves filled with steamed pork and topped with sweet kimchi, worked my way through giant seafood pancakes washed down with bottles of Hite beer, and finally settled into a meat coma after a feast of luscious grilled-at-the-table beef short rib barbecue, whose heady aroma would make even the staunchest of vegetarians lick her lips.
When I returned to Phoenix, I believed my Korean food binge had ended. But good fortune was smiling upon me that day. E-mails from friends excitedly told of a spot in the West Valley that not only served up crazy-good Korean cuisine but stayed open into the wee hours, as well.
Fantastic and late-night Korean food in the Valley? This I had to see.
Café Ga Hyang makes its home in a desolate strip mall in Glendale, amid Thai and Japanese eateries, a tattoo shop, and a massive parking lot that boasts more crumbling blacktop than cars. Inside, however, the restaurant is anything but bleak. Welcoming, comfortable, and laced with the nose-tingling aromas of garlic, vinegar, and ginger, the restaurant draws a mostly Korean clientele. Packed into tables and booths, they engage in enthusiastic discussion over bites of banchan (little dishes of marinated vegetables, kimchi, and other delights that accompany meals), write down customized orders on a harried server's notepad, and, after 10 p.m., when the restaurant seems more like a Koreatown bar, egg each other on with glasses of soju (a slightly sweet, vodka-type beverage) during late-night karaoke marathons.
"Our customers like the food, but they also love the atmosphere," Café Ga Hyang co-owner Nick Rocha says. "To them, it feels like home. And we stay open late for people who work in the industry, so they have somewhere to go to get something to eat."
Rocha and co-owner Sun Johnson bought Café Ga Hyang, whose name means "hometown," in June of last year after working together down the street at the Japanese and Korean restaurant Takamatsu and then, for a short time, at a now-shuttered nearby Korean barbecue spot.
If there were a poster woman for the health benefits of eating Korean food, it would be Sun Johnson. A force when working the front of the house, the 65-year-old credits Korean food (though mostly without the meat) as the reason behind her complexion of a 40-year-old and her ability to work the demanding hours of Café Ga Hyang. With a personality as spicy as some of the restaurant's dishes, the energetic Johnson isn't shy about telling guests what they should order, explaining what bites of banchan should be added to entrees, commending customers for finishing a dish (or telling them it won't be good for leftovers), or — as she did on one of my visits — asking a dining companion of mine why he would order bibim without knowing what to do with it and then playfully pushing him aside and showing him how.
If Johnson is unavailable for guidance, you could start with the popular Korean street food duk boki, a fiery dish of rice cake tubes and sliced Korean-style fish cakes cooked with onions and peppers in a red chili sauce. The chewy and soft rice cakes help to cut the sauce's spiciness, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to have a water glass or two nearby. Perfect to share is a haemul pa jeon, or seafood pancake. Packed with vegetables (most notably, scallions), shrimp, and squid, this dinner-plate-size disc is sliced pizza-style into textured triangles featuring a crispy-brown and eggy batter and slight greasiness — which may be why it always tastes so good to me when I'm indulging in beer.
For those less acquainted with Korean cuisine, it may seem easier to order the more familiar Korean barbecue dishes than to venture into lesser-known entrees, but this would be a mistake at Café Ga Hyang. Served from the kitchen (as opposed to a grill in the middle of the table), most are perfectly acceptable and well prepared but come up short on a flavorful marinade, as in the case of the thinly sliced beef bul goki and the sliced pork version, daeji bul goki, which is better thanks to a spicy sauce.
If there is a stellar meat dish to be had, it is an off-menu item that Johnson calls kung pao chicken but actually is closer, Rocha says, to Korean fried chicken, or yangnyeom tongdak. Arriving as a glowing red mass of chicken pieces coated in a thick, crispy batter and covered in a sweet and spicy sauce, each sticky bite gives way to tender meat inside and just might have you swearing off the standard Western version for good. But be warned, a little goes a long way — which shouldn't be a problem, given the leftovers are just as tasty.
For stir-fry fans, there's jap chae. Literally meaning "a mixture of vegetables," this version, served warm, features a tasty nest of lightly cooked, clear housemade noodles stir-fried in sesame oil with beef, thinly sliced carrots, onions, mushrooms, and peppers, and flavored with soy sauce and a bit of sugar. With this slightly sweet and veggie-heavy sensation, wrapping as much as you can get around your chopsticks pays off in full.
On the spicier side are Café Ga Hyang's bibim bap dishes. The popular Korean entrees are served in large bowls filled with luscious sautéed seasoned vegetables and sliced meat (beef, in my case) and topped with a fried egg. You can add rice and squirts of a spicy sauce made from gochujang (a Korean hot pepper paste) to taste. Use your spoon to mix or "bibim" it until the many flavorful ingredients are found in each spicy bite.
As far as soups and stews, Café Ga Hyang has several top-notch selections. Skip the sul long tang, a soup featuring boiled beef bones (which provide its milky color), beef slices, and chopped spring onions. Sadly, it lacked the big beefy flavor I'd hoped for. Instead, opt for the spicy and peppery bright red seafood stew cham pong, served up hearty-like in a helmet-size bowl and loaded with giant shrimp, clams, squid, fresh veggies, green onions, and housemade soba noodles, or the deeply flavored haemul soon du bu, a hot and spicy Korean stew made with seafood, vegetables, and silky pieces of tofu. It will arrive at the table boiling angrily, cooking the jiggling raw egg cracked on top of it and possibly giving you a glimpse of another set of eyes — those of a giant prawn floating in the broth. When cooled, add rice and mix for a spicy seafood-laden dish in which the stew's overall flavor is absorbed in the pieces of the soft tofu.
For adventurous diners, there's the Korean cold noodle dish (one of my favorites), naeng myun, served in a steel bowl with ice floating in a tangy broth of thin buckwheat noodles, slices of cucumber, crunchy Asian pear, pickled daikon, beef, and a hard-boiled egg. Scissors are used to cut the lengthy noodles (a symbol of good health and a long life) before eating. And the accompanying spicy mustard and vinegar can (and should) be added for a unique and refreshing taste with equally interesting textures.
"Chinese food is popular, sushi is popular — people might think Korean food is strange, but that's just because they haven't tried a lot of it," Rocha tells me.
Consider yourself invited.