It seems like I’m going to have company every weekend.
This weekend, my buddy Joanna drove up from her temporary residence at San Diego to hang out with me again. She slept over Saturday and left Sunday afternoon after church service.
Joanna is what we call “chosunjok” in Korean (조선족), or “chaoxianzhu” in Mandarin (朝鲜族). That’s a term used to describe Korean ethnics in China. Joanna is full-blooded Korean, but her family has been living in China as Chinese citizens for generations.
Here’s a quick history lesson: There was a huge migrant from Korea to China between the year 1860-1945. The migration during the 1860s was triggered by natural famines; in order to avoid starvation in their country, thousands of Koreans moved up north to China. During the early to mid-1900s, however, most of the Korean immigrants were forced up country due to persecution by the Japanese occupation.
The strange phenomenon is that even though these Koreans have been living in China for generations and generations, they kept their nationality intact by marrying within ethnicity. Even though they speak fluent Mandarin, most of them still preserve some Korean identity and culture. Joanna is one of this case.
That’s one of the reason we bonded since young. We both speak English, Korean and Chinese; we are familiar with American, Korean and Chinese cultures. So it’s just so easy to communicate with her. Most of the times we hop around from English to Chinese to Korean depending on which language provides the best expression.
Another reason we get along is probably because we both love to eat and are adventurous eaters. Joanna is a closet foodie. She probably doesn’t really know what “foodie” means, which just means her enthusiasm for eating is pure and unadulterated by snobbery.
I was thinking of taking her to Santa Monica, but Joanna preferred to stick around the neighborhood. So that’s exactly what we did. We took a walking and eating tour around my hood, Koreatown.
Long-time readers will already know how much I love Koreatown. But seriously, why is Koreatown so underrated? When I tell people I live in Los Angeles, they ask me excitedly about Beverly Hills and Venice Beach and Disneyland, but nobody even bothers about Koreatown because it’s inexplicably off the tourist map.
But I do agree—Koreatown is not for the faint-hearted. It’s for people who really want to explore deep into the heart of Los Angeles. And I’m telling you—Koreatown is the heartbeat of Los Angeles.
Okay enough preaching. Time to eat.
We walked by the perimeters south of Koreatown: Olympic Boulevard, Western Avenue, and down Vermont Avenue. On the way, for some reason Joanna only had eyes for restaurants and little clothing stores. Now you know why we get along well.
We passed by Korean rice cake bakeries, Korean-French bakeries, Korean BBQ restaurants, Korean soon dae houses, and by the time we walked by our fourth Korean-Chinese restaurant, Joanna could stand it no longer.
“We have to eat!” she cried. So we entered the restaurant right in front of us, Young King Chinese restaurant.
Young King is a Korean-Chinese restaurant. And it was a pleasant surprise for Joanna to discover that not only was it a restaurant run by Koreans, it was by Chosunjok people like her. That meant the servers could speak both Mandarin and Korean like us, and they had that Korean look but the Chinese briskness of service.
The interior was…tacky. Garish chandeliers hanging in juxtaposition to cheap, chipping tables and smudged booths. And the service, though fast and efficent, left much to be desired. When we asked a bustling server where the restroom is, she actually shooed and pushed her way past us.
But the food was excellent and decently priced. We were first dished out some kimchi and raw onion with black bean sauce.
The kimchi was definitely not Korean-style. It was crisp and clean, lacking the complexity of typical Korean kimchis, which meant they left out the shrimp paste and anchovy sauce. Joanna said it’s exactly the kind of kimchi her grandmother makes.
If you’re wondering what you do with that onion and black, tar-like sauce, you just pick up a piece of raw onion, dip it into the black sauce, and munch away. Definitely not a romantic date food.
It was barely four and way too early for a proper dinner, but we tucked in anyway. We got a jajangmyun to share:
Honestly, if you’re visiting a Korean-Chinese restaurant and you order a shrimp fried rice or a General Tsao chicken, I will…Well, let’s just say it’ll be like a dagger into my heart. You HAVE to order a jajangmyun, even if you don’t intend to finish it. It’s just an unspoken rule.
I’ve introduced jajangmyun in this blog many, many times, but I’ll do it again just because it’s something I’ll never tire of exalting.
“Jajang” basically means “fried sauce” and that’s what it is. Sauce (in this case, a fermented black bean sauce) that has been fried. In Korean jajangmyun, usually this sauce is fried with tons of onions, zucchini and bits of ground pork. We got the three-seafood jajangmyun, so ours came with shrimp, squid and sea cucumber as well.
Yes, sea cucumber (look above at that black rubbery thing). Have you not tried that before? Poor thing. You simply must. Ignore how pathetic it looks; it’s divine.
The “myun” of Jajangmyun means “noodles” in Korean. The difference between Korean and Chinese “fried sauce noodles” is that Korean noodles are usually not handmade in the kitchen but a conventional wheat noodles.
Young King served us our jajangmyun with the sauce and the noodles separate so that we can mix them up ourselves.
And you betcha we slurped our hearts out. It’s a beautifully messy dish.
Because this dish was cooked by Chosunjoks, it was actually rather different from the jajangmyun in Korea. It was a hybrid of Chinese and Korean influences—not as sweet as Korean ones, but still different from the Chinese version.
We also ordered mooshu pork because we saw someone else order that and it just looked so good.
It came nice and plump—spring roll wrapper forming a hot pouch around bean sprouts, pork strips, cabbage and carrots stir-fried in sweet hoisin sauce.
Delicious. Funny, but I’ve never ordered mooshu pork in my life before. I didn’t really know what it was until that day. I recognize the product as a familiar Northern China fare; I just never knew the name for it. I always thought of it as the Chinese “taco” because usually the family assembles the ingredients together at the dining table.
After that hefty meal we shopped around Koreatown, making a square-shaped route back to my apartment. We chilled there for half an hour to rest our legs, get a tiny bit hungry, and set out for a night of desserts.
We went to Hwa Sun Ji. I didn’t take pictures there because I’ve already been there like a bazillion times before. But Joanna was in love with it. We of course had pat bing soo (shaved ice). And then we decided we wanted another pat bing soo so we drove to another cafe called IOTA for more sweet endings.
I’m going to do another separate post on IOTA, but it’s a pretty nifty cafe tailored towards the young Korean Americans who are well-versed with Korean pop culture.
There were huge flat-screen TVs projecting Korean pop music videos. Joanna could identify all the bands but I couldn’t. I’m not…at all a fan of the Korean entertainment industry.
We ordered another round of pat bing soo:
Not at all impressed. It lacked pizzazz. It was just ice with condensed milk, minimal adzuki beans (which is what MAKES this dish!), blah fruits and blah ice cream. NOT worth the $10 at all.
But we downed it anyway because we were craving pat bing soo.
We also got a sweet potato cake drizzled with caramel sauce:
Which was SUPER fantastic. I’m not a big fan of cake, but this was no cake. It was super dense—just a thin layer of sponge cake over a rich, smooth sweet potato whip that was speckled with chunks of chestnuts. The above white mound was sweetened, stabilized whipped cream that managed to stay light and fluffy, unlike cloying buttercream.
Believe me, we waddled back home like overweight penguins. And I’m not even done with the trip. The next day we had yet another giant feast, but that’s another post.
Question of the Day: Joanna asked me what my non-Korean blog readers will think of something so black and…well, black like jajangmyun. So, please give us your honest opinion. What do you think of jajangmyun?