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Soban: Koreatown

October 26, 2011

Those familiar either with KCRW’s “Good Food” show/blog or the LA Weekly’s restaurant critic Jonathan Gold will have likely heard about Soban. Gold has sung the praises of two dishes in praticular from the small restaurant in Koreatown–the galbi jjim and the ganjan gaejang–and when I found myself in the area a couple weeks ago, I made it a point to stop in for one.

On a Friday afternoon, Soban feels like a secret. It is clean and simple, and when I walked in with a friend we were the only two customers. After a truly painful decision, I went against my usual preference for seafood and ordered the galbi jjim. I scarcely had time to wonder if I’d made the right call before the banchan, a dozen or so small appetizer plates that come with every meal, came out of the kitchen:

Two types of kimchi, peppers with a siracha style sauce, two seaweed salads, bean sprouts, scallion pancakes, fish cakes, and other veggies covered the table. I had been especially looking forward to these tiny plates, as they are never served quite the same way twice. Tart, sour, spicy, and satisfying, I was full enough from these alone. Then came the rice–the stickiest brown rice I’ve ever had, studded with nutty beans–and the galbi jjim.

Galbi jjim is a common braised short-rib stew, although to call this particular version either “common” or “stew” is a bit of a stretch. The meat is cut from the bones by your waitress when the stew hits the table, a process that doesn’t take much time since they practically slide of on their own. The piles of beef sit in a broth that struck me more as a glaze; spicy, sticky, sweetened with dates, and deeply complex, the stew was absolutely different from anything I’ve ever eaten. The beef itself was soft and flavorful, with melty rings of cartilage and fat. It takes a really fantastic dish to get me excited about eating a lot of beef, and this one definitely did the job.

At the end of the meal we were served a honey-sweet rice drink, which somehow performed the miracle of convincing me that I wasn’t too full to move. I don’t know that I would order this again, because it’s a kind of commitment, a world unto itself. Still, I’m confident that there’s nothing else like it. Combined with the palette-cleansing banchan and the rice drink, it was absolutely a unique and wonderful meal.

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