If Koreans have learned one thing about cold weather, it's that nothing warms you up better than food. A huge part of Korean cuisine is comprised soups and stews that warm the soul. Probably the best part of Korea that we rarely see in the U.S. is the wonderful variety of street food (as might be true of all of Asia's street food culture). I remember growing up our family would drive across Korea by car, stopping by the large rest area depots that made fresh, hot hodo gwaja, walnut shaped treats that were filled with warm red bean paste. Koreans are pretty awesome at making semi-sweet desserts and snacks that are good any time of day, and sometimes gain an unreasonable amount of deliciousness when the weather gets cold.
I remember the first hhotteok I had in my life, popularized in L.A. by a mysterious Gypsy-wagon parked at the former California Market called "Koo's" (my buddies and I just called it the hhotteok truck. The steel-top griddle treat was like one of the halves that comprise a McDonald's McGriddle, but about a hundred times better. Hotteok is made of a stiff dough that's wrapped around brown sugar (sometimes nuts and honey) and griddled, leaving a molten goo that spills out, sometimes singing the tongue badly. A light dusting of cinnamon rounds out the intoxicating aromas of warmed dough, browned to perfection by Mr. Koo (or whoever was working with him). They cost a mere buck, and were a must-eat if you were passing by California Market on Western. The best version of hhotteok for me was in Seoul's Insadong district, where a woman deep-fried the suckers and wrapped them in cardstock paper. They were like a Korean churro, crisp on the outside with a lava-like center that seemed to never cool. On a cold evening, they were pretty much the ideal walk-away snack.
Sadly the hhotteok at Gook Hwa House are disappointing. They seem bready and pancake-like, which isn't necessarily a bad thing if that's what you're in the mood for. It's nice that they're a bit more complex, in that instead of stiff dough they seem to combine walnuts, almonds, sesame, and honey powder. But I really like the chewy goodness of the dough that I used to get at Koo's (which has supposedly relocated to the Beverly Boulevard California Market...).
What you're really here at Gook Hwa House is the gook hwa bbang (bbang is better pronounced like a very soft "p"), where the hodo gwaja takes a circular shape with an imprint of a flower (supposed to be a chrysanthemum). The cute treat is a mere 9 for $3, and everything is self service. A gentleman and his helper work hard to whip out the treats while you pay (bins containing cash are right up front) and stuff the gook hwa bbang into your paper bag. The soft cake surrounding the red bean paste gets a nice browning, leaving you with a not-too-sweet after dinner dessert (worked great after my monster meal of barbecue at Oo Gook). Walk around Assi Market, shop around what's arguably the best Korean supermarket in L.A., and warm up!
Gook Hwa House
3525 W. 8th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90005