There are just some days when you want to duck into a bowl or plate of something familiar, something that you hope will restore your faith in the world, or perhaps give you the energy to get through the day. Or perhaps get over one of the longest, most tiring, and most exciting days you've had in the whole year, despite the odd pangs of food poisoning that might be creeping up on your digestive system. I had such a day a few weeks ago after the nearly epic Taste of the Nation event in Culver City, where Scoops ice cream was on full display. Think Jacques Torres screaming at the top of his lungs and blowing off champagne corks to wow the crowds. Not that such activity isn't riveting, it's just that it takes a bit for this old(er) body of mine to recuperate.
Korean food isn't "Korean food" for me – it’s nourishment for life, the source and basis of everything that I know to be real. The odd thing is that Koreatown restaurants have been a part of me since my earliest memories, so much so that there are often restaurants that I will return to after more than a decade or perhaps even two decades. It's mainly a result of the typical Korean-American experience in Los Angeles. Like many first and second generation immigrants, Koreatown was and continues to be the hub of all community life - it's where all the big markets, churches, shopping malls, banks, and of course, restaurants are located. Sure there are enclaves spread throughout the Southland, like Gardena, La Crescenta, Diamond Bar, Cerritos, Garden Grove, Irvine, and Valencia. Koreans tend to venture out to the suburbs looking not necessarily for cheaper housing or bigger yards, but good public schools.
I was born nearby Cerritos, still a well-known enclave of old-school Korean joints (there's still a branch of Gil Mok, The Corner Place on James M. Wood in Koreatown that my family used to go to, for delicious cold noodles and grilled meat). Our family would venture to Koreatown for a minimum of every Sunday, sometimes as early as before the sun rose. Church, still the major community gathering place for Korean Americans, and the reason for our weekly trips to L.A. After a long day of serving at church (which meant running around dusty playgrounds for me), our family would venture to an excellent Korean restaurant to get our fill of the homeland.
Jun Won might, and probably was one of those restaurants that my family used to frequent on these Sunday afternoons. It might not be, but there are a lot of restaurants in Koreatown that have this vague, haunting feeling of familiarity, like it lives somewhere deep in my subconscious memory. Jun Won is truly an old-school joint, the place does not fail to remind you that it wears its age. You have the small wooden stubs that serve at chairs and the disfigured slabs of varnished oak that make for tables. Paper placemats contain the entire menu, which ranges from majestic simmering platters of complex stews, grilled meats atop beds of onion slivers (which caramelize beautifully as you eat), and a variety of pan-fried and spicy braised fish dishes. Bright fluorescent lights, dingy ceiling tiles, even an opague metal door that provides the only semblance of the outside world all contribute to Jun Won's stature, which is one of serious home cooking. The signage isn’t in English, so you’re best just making an educated guess and double-checking the address.
Zach, Sam and I huddled around, each in our relative fatigued states, ordering a bevy of dishes that our table could barely contain. A mixed stir-fry of kimchi and pork belly with softened white onion and a fiery red sauce whose sweet soybean paste belied the impression of spice. The pan-fried yellow corvina, one of my favorite fishes, was marvelous and fun to eat - flaky, dense, and perfect with a squeeze of lemon. The tubu chigae (tofu stew) is the systematic meld of two classic chigaes: doenjang and kimchi. Now if you ask anyone who grew up eating Korean food at home, they normally tell you they ate both of these chigaes in profuse amounts, nearly every day, and perhaps even in tandem. Almost every All You Can Eat Korean Barbeque in Koreatown offers a small bowl of doenjang chigae at the end of your meal as it’s the perfect salty, hot broth that helps wash down grilled meat. Tubu Chigae has the red pepper spice of kimchi chigae, but the large chunks of silken tofu with a permeated soybean paste broth that’s typical of doenjang chigae. We win as diners.
If you can swing it, you can’t go wrong with the haemul pajeon, or seafood pancake that’s the size of six stacked LP records but with a golden hue and redolence of octopus. It’s a stomach-filler for sure, but also crowd pleaser, with its tempered fishiness. A dip into a bit of soy sauce and you’re money.
Jun Won might be more expensive than your standard Korean restaurant. You’ll be paying something like $15-25 a person depending on what you order. I’m not sure that isn’t worth it though, because of the constant opening of new restaurants and the price pressure that comes along with it, traditional Korean restaurants like this have a tough time competing. But instead they offer a quality of cooking that the newer places don’t have. Among the “jung shik” or traditional restaurants in Koreatown, I’d place Jun Won up there with the likes of Seong Bok Dong on 6th Street, Mapo (a bit cheaper but also not quite as polished) on 6th, the late Sa Rit Gol on Olympic (the one place everyone always talks about), and perhaps the newcomer So Ban only Olympic Blvd. There are still a ton of jung shik restaurants that fly under the radar because of the overall dominance of Korean barbeque joints in Koreatown, but it’s places like Jun Won that remind you that Korean cuisine is so much more than tabletop grilled meats served in egregious amounts. I assure you that you’ll find these traditional dishes more comforting.
Jun Won Restaurant
3100 W 8th St
Los Angeles, CA 90005