June 22, 2011

O Jang Dong - Cold Korean Noodles for the Summer

It's always a curious reaction when I tell people that Koreans like to eat a super-hot bowl of samgyetang, ginseng chicken soup, on the hottest day of the year, usually some time around June. They also like to eat naeng myun, cold noodles in a beef broth or tossed in a spicy-sweet sauce, on the coldest days of winter. O Jang Dong is the rebirth of a restaurant of the same name that used to occupy the current Sun Ha Jang space, a restaurant that saw a second life after Jonathan Gold shed light on its ducky-goodness (actually he credits me, but in fact I learnt of the place from Neil Kwon of Biergarten and Javier Cabral, the Glutster).

O Jang Dong was reopened by my friend's parents, who went into an early retirement after selling their previous restaurant. Honestly, I think my friend Susan's father was just itching to get back into the restaurant business. We should all be thankful, because his signature dish was always the simplest, purest bowl of mool naeng myun one could get in Koreatown.

A short history on naeng myun. They're generally buckwheat noodles of a good length, thin strands resembling speckled wet hair, and at its ideal, possessing a slight al dente bite and an almost nutty flavor. The dish originates from my ancestral homeland in North Korea, a specialty of Pyongyang. The best version I've ever had was on a stretch of blank road along the 38th Parallel. It was late fall of 2009 and I was traveling through Seorak San, one of the most beautiful mountains in the Korean Peninsula (think of it as their Yosemite). My mother, her friend, and I were driving through and found a small hut of a restaurant along the road that served the most fantastic bibim naeng myun I've ever had, with stringy noodles of whiter complexion than I'd seen, but with a spiceful and lusty sauce and crunchy pickled vegetables that somehow reminded me that the Koreas are not two countries, but one singular country that has been unfortunately separated by a tragic war that never ended. Sitting on the mats and eating at a knee high table (as is customary to eat Korean rural cuisine), I somehow wondered how my aunt, my father's older sister, was doing in the North, trapped by political tyranny and oppression. To me, naeng myun never ceases to remind me of the beauty in my heritage and culture, the simplicity and wonder of a bowl of cold, spicy noodles.

Despite its common wintertime consumption, naeng myun is the perfect summer food - refreshing, light, yet full of flavorful depth in its vairants. A good bowl might be one of the hardest things to find in Koreatown, mostly because of the incredible effort it takes to make it well. It's sort of like the dearth of truly good ramen in Southern California before a few solid places opened in the past few years. O Jang Dong did had a very good bowl of mool naeng myun when it occupied its Olympic Blvd space, but the newer digs on 3rd Street are a bit better, with long windows that let in tons of natural light and a cheery dining room and has a nice lunchtime din. The mool naeng myun here features house-made noodles that have a terrific bite and standard issue broth that doesn't necessarily bedazzle but allows for the noodles to stand out. Honestly, it's quite good, but you'd be hard pressed to find much better in Koreatown. The best mool naeng myun I've had in Koreatown was actually the final course at Yong Susan, a fancy multi-course restaurant with private rooms.

What's more compelling at O Jang Dong is the bibim naeng myun, which comes with flecks of skate wing amongst the thicker, tossed noodles that aren't as buckwheat-y and might have a higher flour content - all the better to soak up the syrupy red chili sauce. Both noodle bowls go particularly well with the barbeque short rib dishes or even a pan of steamed mandoo (dumplings) that are made in-house. The menu also features a bevy of classic chigaes and typical Korean dishes in the event that you're not up for cold noodles. But for the summer time, I don't see that happening.

O Jang Dong Naeng Myun
4031 W 3rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90004
Neighborhood: Koreatown
(213) 365-0097


Diana said...

I'll have to remember this place now that I'm working nearby. Sounds delightful! The perfect cool dinner before a cool dessert at a certain ice cream shop.

glutster said...

sweet. thanks for the write-up man. Gonna try this next time I am around.

I must say though, I was brave enough to steer away from the brisket soup and try some of the cold noodles at Mapo last time.

....Kinda instantly fell in love with them! haha. (noodles in white bean broth? Chestnut noodles with cold veggies?)

Have you tried the cold noodle dishes at mapo before?