Back to why I don't cover Korean restaurants, that's an issue that's slowly changing as I discover these new restaurants. It's not that the scene isn't being covered by the likes of Josh of FoodGPS or other food bloggers. There's simply no excuse, so this review hopefully dispels any unreasonable explanation.
Mapo Kak Du Gee Jip or simply, "Mapo" occupies a tiny joint in a strip mall along 6th Street. The place is commonly confused with Mapo Dal Galbi, a chicken-grill restaurant located on Olympic that couldn't be more different. The LA Times recently wrote a great review of Mapo Kak Du Gee Jip thanks to C. Thi Nyugen, who really didn't quite make the Find (the place was well known among Yelpers). Josh Lurie and I sat down for a quick lunch a few Saturdays ago after the LAT review and I realized for once the Yelpers might actually be right on this one.
First off, kak du gee refers to the signature banchan offered at Mapo (a point I stupidly forgot to remark on a recent "random" lunch meeting I had with Zach Brooks of MidtownLunchLA, Noah Galuten of LA Weekly's Squid Ink Blog (and Man Bites World fame), and Jeff Miller of Thrillist LA. I've been munching on kak du gee since childhood, where both my grandparents made mean versions. I always like taking a huge bite out of the fermented daikon radish (called moo in Korean). They go great with a hot steaming bowl of suhl lung tang (bone marrow soup), the piquant kick pairing perfectly with the chunks of beef and white noodles.
At Mapo, you're more likely to see the kak du gee (and name sake of the restaurant) nestled amongst a phallanx of stellar banchan, most of which change daily. I've been here three times in the last month and have probably encountered 15-20 different kinds of banchan, no small feat for such a diminuitive restaurant. When a place is focusing on high-quality banchan, then you know they're doing something right, for banchan is the hallmark of a good Korean restaurant. There's white acorn jelly, steamed broccoli, familiar baby napa cabbage kimchi and essentially a ton of other things you can use to intersperse the flavors of Korea into your meal.
That's really the function of banchan, not just to act as a "free-bee" appetizer for the meal, but really side dishes for the entire meal.
The meal goes from compelling to fascinating once you get to the main dishes, of which there are plenty to explore. The $5.99 lunch specials include solid version of napa cabbage kalbi tang (short rib stew), bibimbap, and knife cut noodles (kal gook soo). The daily spread of banchan comes with that fantastic lunch deal.
Josh pointed out the soo jae bi and pan-fried fish on our first visit. The soo jae bi is essentially a dough-clump soup whereupon dough flakes are ripped off by hand and placed into boiling dashi broth. Mapo's broth is imbued with subtle clams and anchovies, making it one of the better version's I've had outside of a Korean mother's kitchen (which are usually terrific). The pan-fried fish is called "ee myun soo gui,", an golden browned beauty with medium-density flesh that isn't too flaky under the weight of chopsticks.
On another visit, I brought my father and grandparents. I figured they would be pretty good judges of the food; they approved heartily of the banchan and the stone-pot bibimbap bowls. My dad and I sunk our teeth into perhaps Mapo's best dish, a hearty serving of spicy black cod stew (eun dae gu joo rim). The sushi-centric A-Won on Vermont serves this dish, while a great version using more oily/dense mackerel can be found at Seong Bok Dong down east on 6th St, but this version simply blows me away with its depth and balance. There's adequate sweetness to counter the gentle heat from the tempered red chili flakes while complexity comes from soy bean paste. The moo or daikon radish must be pre-braised because they are incredibly tender, much like braised carrots wilt under hours in the oven, only the Korean daikon soaks up the braising liquid much better. Be sure to order this dish despite the higher entry price (of merely $21).
I didn't particularly care for the other fish the lady recommended we get, the ga jae mi. It's lightly floured and pan-fried, but I'd much rather come back try the gong-chi jui, thinner mackerel pike that have tons of omega-3's and incredibly deep flavor. I remember picking through their minuscule bones in numerous church picnics growing up.
The other fantastic dish here is the one that I would want on my deathbed (or rather less morbidly, as my final meal, whatever and whenever that may be). Yook heh jang is a hearty soup of spicy beef broth, vermicelli noodles, long roots, and tender brisket. The dish is made right by slowly adding in some rice, which soaks up the broth. Mapo's version actually exudes a level of visual presentation, the top lined with scallions and netted together with scrambled egg. I'm sure there are other excellent versions of this dish to be found in K-town, but I haven't found it. Or maybe because I haven't been looking hard enough.
If you're going to head to Mapo (on 6th! not Olympic), be sure to go before 12:30 to beat the lunch crowds. I also recommend going with less than 6 people, as the tables tend to be a bit small. Don't worry about your wallet though, because unless you each get the spicy black cod dishes, you'll be hard pressed to run over $12-15 a person, and you might have to be rolled out after all the food.
Mapo Kak Du Gee Jip
3611 W 6th St
Los Angeles, CA 90020
Note: They take credit card.