As downtown Los Angeles increasingly evolves into a hip canvas for new toques to show off their kitchen prowess, diners are just as increasingly tempted to cross the 405 and 110 Freeways after dark, in search of some of the city’s most acclaimed food. But as you head east from the familiarly popular restaurant rows of Fairfax Avenue or West 3rd Street, you venture through an oddly exciting (yet unnervingly foreign) neighborhood, which is home to some 120,000 Korean residents. And without GPS and a solid phonetic recommendation, finding an authentic and satisfying meal in K’town can be a bit of a long shot. You see, with the overabundance of brightly illuminated Korean signs screaming for your attention, what you hope might be a good steakhouse…could turn out to be a good gynecologist instead.
As far as first impressions go, Mapo Galbi is a slight jolt to the expectation system. But don’t let the indecipherable Korean sign, nor the rather nondescript storefront or any of the interior choices of functional vinyl, 70’s wood veneer and sensible mirrors sway you. When you sit around one of the 10 gas-griddle tables, and slip on one of those cute, red aprons – you realize that you are about to venture more than a few feet outside the box.
As our evening progressed, the hostess seemed to grow measurably more charming – even as we careened repeatedly into our substantial language barrier. When I mentioned that I had “wanted to try this restaurant for some time,” she obligingly pointed to the restroom door. The very succinct menu was equally tricky to navigate, but with the aid of hand gestures, charades and the translation services of a neighboring table in between a gush of giggles, we somehow managed to order the highly popular Dak Galbi (spicy chicken with vegetables).
Our appetizers included a sliced cabbage salad with a creamy dressing, and a small dish of Water Kimchi, which consisted of a few submerged crunchy carrot and radish sticks under a milky, briny yet pleasantly refreshing, fermented broth. At this point, our griddle pan arrived, and the dish assembly began with alacrity. The ingredients started with rather simple chunks of marinated chicken, sweet potato chips and short ropes of rice-cake. Once browned, these were followed with coarsely chopped cabbage and a most unstinting helping of Gochujang (chili, sugar, sesame, garlic) sauce.
Just prior to serving, sesame leaves and scallions were scissored in, giving the dish a fresh green accent.
The side dishes (Banchan) included a rather soft, sweet and chewy strip of kimchi fish cake, a wonderfully flavorful seaweed salad, roasted zucchini and a few very crispy taco-sized slices of pickled radish. Our challenge was to balance a portion of chicken, rice-cake and cabbage onto a radish slither – without dropping the contents during the chopstick-assisted journey toward the lips. (If the need for the red aprons wasn’t clear earlier, it was blatantly obvious now.) The delectable combination of the sweet, sharp, savory and spicy, warm chicken against the cold and briny radish was a perfectly restrained contrast of the foreign and the familiar. And the incredible texture variety of melt-in-your-mouth rice cakes on one hand with crunchy scallions on the other, took the rather simple and gimmick-free dish to a unique and unexpected level.
And just when the evening began to wane, our hostess reignited the griddle and stirred up a small bowl of rice with chopped kimchi and a few black ribbons of dried seaweed, for a delicious post-course, sizzling stir-fry.
While I can happily vouch for the quality, I cannot speak to the authenticity of Mapo Galbi, but über-esteemed Momofuku chef David Chang not only can and does, but he even goes so far as to consider it one of his all-time favorites.