Jae Bu Do in Koreatown

My explorations of Koreatown have been safe ones, I'll admit. Taking the hot spring waters and receiving body scrubs at the myriad of Korean spas happens to be one of my most favorite experiences. I have several favorite spas in Koreatown that I have frequented for many years. The Koreatown Galleria is another adventure, with the huge supermarket underground, a Disneyland of Korean groceries, and the charming Ho Won Dang sweet shop (now closed) was a delightful little gem. The restaurants I've been to in Koreatown have been few, however. They have been mysterious places that I haven't been brave enough to enter.

The first Korean restaurant I had dinner at was with my Korean friends and their family. I was not only the singular Western woman there, but I was also the only vegetarian (at the time). I think the place was called Manna, on Olympic Boulevard, as I remember the design of the building, the family style table, the dining room we were given. I was offered the first choices of vegetables and tofu from the boiling pot of broth on the grill in the center of the table, along with the banchan 반찬 (little side dishes). That was before they added in the meat. Among the small plates full of various things I recognized from previous Korean dining (mainly in spa kitchens) was the kongnamul 콩나물 that I am so fond of. Kongnamul is cold bean sprout in sesame oil. I go crazy for the stuff. There are some offerings of kim chi that I like, and others I've tried but can't handle the biting vinegary taste. Even the anchovies I fair well with, depending. I love Jeon, jyun (or buchimgae) which are savory pancakes made from scallions and various other ingredients.

Several times I have gone to BCD Tofu House in Koreatown, and of course that's where I enjoy bibimbap. Unless the waitress tells me they don't have it. I suspect treachery in that moment, and order all of the ingredients for bibimbap on the menu separately, making a bowlful of my own happiness in that odd case, sans hot stone bowl. I have burned the soft white inside of my arm on hot stone bowls, still bearing the slight pink scar from the most recent time. I love jap chae noodles and seaweed soup in heaping amounts of broth and seaweed. Gochujang is my obsession no matter what I'm eating, and I welcome the intensity of chili pepper and garlic running through my insides with fire in my mouth, exuding through my pores, savoring it with wanton relish. Quite truly, I am addicted to gochujang. If you ever wonder who that Western woman is with a red squeeze bottle in one hand and chopsticks in another, most likely, that woman is me.

But Jae Bu Do in Koreatown was an adventure that I braved, and decided if I was going to try a real Koreatown experience, then this place would be the magic spot. I was willing, if you can credit me that much.

I went to join the L.A. Asian Foodies group, and brought my eleven year old son along for the dinner. We were late, of course. Driving up Western Avenue on a Friday evening at 6 p.m. was no feat for the weak or weary. I have hidden cabbie skills and a calm demeanor, so I wasn't troubled by the rough ride through gritty Los Angeles Koreatown traffic. I was determined to give this a solid try and thought it would make a fun experience with my son, who will try anything.

I was relying upon my instinct to guide me in finding this place, as there was the foreign restaurant sign in Hangul, with not a letter of English. I guessed my way into the cramped parking lot, and decided to close my mind to the fellows that valet the cars. Who knew where my precious minivan was parked and how it was done? We went inside to find our group, all sixteen people including us, tables full, grills going, smoke and seafood and the waitstaff hustling about. We sat snug at the table, without much else to eat with but chopsticks and one glove each. The gloves were to help diners with the heat of the food from the grill, and I couldn't fathom why. Until I realized that I would be peeling my own shrimp and prying open my clams--- things I had never done before. The familiar gochujang in sight, but nary a bowl of rice to assuage my hunger.

Clams and abalone cooked on the grill in their shells, and conch, squirming. The scallops and other things were also sizzling on top of the grill, and the foil wrapped sweet potatoes were nestled underneath the coals. As I sat there, contemplating the banquet, my table guests offered me Hite beer (which I never, if ever, drink) and barley tea (I consume this daily at home). I had a half glass of the beer for novelty and also to hide the fact that I was unsure of what I was getting myself into. I had never eaten a clam out of a shell before.

Perhaps I had this idea that there would be other things I would like, such as noodles. Come to find, the bubbling cauldron of noodle soup would be the grand finale of the banquet, and I would have to manage with the clams, scallops, whole shrimps with eyes and legs and tails, all on my very own. A lovely chap named Paul assisted me with his skill and clever tutelage in peeling the shrimp. He showed my son and I the simplest way to go about peeling the shrimp for eating. Bless him, dear man. The beer went down quickly, and I craved more. I drank several glasses of barley tea instead. My other dining mates seemed to have it all down pat.

I opened a tiny clam with my gloved hand and ate it out of the shell. To my pleasure, I liked it. It was sweet and not very chewy, and reminded me of the clams I had sometimes had in various Korean seaweed soups. Nothing at all like the clam chowder I knew as a little girl, but that's an altogether different sort of clam eating. Canned clam chowder (or fresh), the soup of my childhood memories did not capture the wonderful freshness of a tiny sweet little clam out of its shell what- so- ever. No, the fresh clam was indeed delicious and an entirely succulent experience. I was afraid to look at the clam meat as I didn't want to get squeamish. Forgive me and my old vegetarian ways. I wanted to taste without looking, and decided I liked clams fresh out of shells after all. Yes, gochujang was smeared generously upon the clam for my comfort. In my mouth, the flavor of the clam was delicate and the spice of the gochujang balanced the taste, savoring it all in one bite.

The scallops were buttery and good. The shrimp was sweet and delicious. I was not brave enough to eat the baby octopus with the entire head and all. But learning how to peel a shrimp, the head first, then the legs, then the tail--- was the highlight. Nothing left but a sweet flavor, with a texture of hot water chestnut. A tiny dollop of gochujang, once again.

I did try a few other things since I was throwing myself into the experience, but the clams for the most part won me over. Then the pajyun pancakes were passed around, of which I had as many servings of as possible. The steamed egg casserole (gyuhran jim) in the small hot stone pot was lovely, and reminded me of the Japanese version called chawan mushi. We ordered extra of those and they were light and fluffy.

The large pot of noodles arrived last to the heat of the grill, and by then I welcomed it. I was craving something after trying all the tastes of the sea, and knife-cut noodles in a chickeny broth was a wonderful way to end the meal.

I left Jae Bu Do with my hair and clothing smelling like charcoal, my hands and legs smeared with clam juice from tasting and spilling the juices from the shell onto my bare legs, wiped away by my hand, as the napkins were scarce, and the waitstaff too busy to ask for any extra. My tongue was happy that I went into this place with abandon, and for enjoying the real Koreatown experience, I was glad deep in my soul.