Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ka Na An Gamjatang

"You're not allergic to MSG, are you?" was the way my boss prefaced the restaurant he took me to last week. He went on to explain that most "street restaurants" use heavy doses of the seasoning, and during the walk to our destination, I worried about what "street restaurants" might mean. Seoul is filled with food stalls and makeshift restaurants created by throwing a few plastic tables and chairs together on the sidewalk, particularly during the summer months, but it was thirty degrees and I was in no mood to linger outside.

I was relieved when we arrived at Ka Na An, a full-fledged restaurant with four walls that was founded in 1983. Phew! I realized that Mr. Kim is so accustomed to working in and traveling to hotels that in his mind there are two types of dining establishments, "hotel" restaurants and "street" restaurants.

Upon entering, we were met with a woosh of hot air and the spicy, salty smell of Korean broth that permeates the streets and alleyways of Seoul. Mr. Kim had taken me to this particular spot because he knew of my love for gamjatang, which translates to “potato soup” but usually includes only a couple of potatoes that aren't the focus of the meal. Instead, it's the large pieces of pork spine covered in tender, flaky meat. Once the steam coating my glasses had disappeared, I glanced at the menu on the wall above us, which was sparse because Korean restaurants tend to specialize in one or two dishes. We discussed which add-ins we would select for our soup and ultimately opted for glass noodles as well as the dough flakes in the shape of flattened coins that are the trademark of sujebi, another classic Korean dish. The final decision to make: soju or no? I said “no” because I am accustomed to thinking that declining alcohol is the polite choice, but when Mr. Kim looked disappointed, I remembered that Korean co-workers bond over soju and he also probably wanted to unwind after his fourteen hour work day (seriously, he had worked fourteen hours that day, and it was no exception). “Why don't we decide after the food comes, and if it looks good we'll get some?” he suggested. As soon as the large metal vat filled with bright red liquid was placed on the burner between us, he requested soju.

This is the one dish I could never find a suitable version of in L.A.'s vast Koreatown, and Ka Na An provided the perfect Korean homecoming. We cheerfully filled our insides with the warmth of hot pepper, pork, and soju until everything took on a fuzzy quality and the bitter cold outside was a distant memory. At the end, the friendly ajuma serving us poured cooked rice into the remaining liquid and fried it up with sliced bits of nori. Delicious!

Note: If you are carnivorous but slightly wary of consuming pork spine, I urge you to try this soup at least once. I tasted this dish before I knew what it was, and by the time I found out I was too addicted to care.

To get to Ka Na An, take the orange line to Yaksu Station. Take exit one, hang an immediate right down the alley, and it's on your right. However, there are plenty of high quality gamjatang/haejangtang restaurants, and if you're not close, I'd recommend finding one in your area.

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