Occasionally in your life, you meet people who immediately make your heart bleed with tenderness.
I’ve met several people like that. Some of them, I got to know better. Others disappear after just a brief encounter.
I wonder if you know what I’m talking about. They are people who for some reason, instantly fills you with fondness. Something about their smile, something about their facial features, something about their mannerisms and the way their eyes crinkle with laughter…their very presence hugs you snuggly with warm fuzzies, and you feel you would do anything for them.
Allow me to introduce you to one such woman. Thankfully, I still get to see her often. And blessedly, I get to eat her cooking.
Her name is Kim Jung Yi, a former North Korean military officer and now a refugee living in Los Angeles with her husband, Charles, also a North Korean refugee. I met her through another North Korean refugee, who I was interviewing for World Magazine.
At that time, I was trying to coax him into allowing me to take a picture of him, promising him that the picture will be pixilated so that he will not be recognized. He kept saying no, but finally he told me to meet me at his friend’s (Charles Kim) restaurant, Yu Hyang Soon Dae.
After much reluctance, he finally allowed me to photograph him—and it was all thanks to the Kims, who joked and teased him until he was softened up into a better mood.
Since then, I’ve been returning to Yu Hyang often. I didn’t get to talk to Mrs. Kim very much, but I did get to chat with her husband Charles, who told me about his difficulties adjusting in South Korea. I left with a new story in mind, and a promise to the Kims that I’ll be back.
I kept my promise. I’ve been returning to this restaurant at least once a month, each time with a new group of friends. And it’s not just because I love the Kims—their food is seriously freaking GOOD. If I go more than a month without eating Mrs Kim’s cooking, I start craving it so much!
The Kims don’t have any help. They can’t afford servers and bussers and cooks. So they perform all those responsibilities, and you can tell the work can be exhausting.
All the time I’ve dined at Yu Hyang, I’ve never seen them be able to sit down and relax. They’re either chopping and dicing in the kitchen, or scrambling around the restaurant serving dishes, or clearing the tables.
For the first several visits, my interaction with the Kims was limited to bows, grins, and exclamations of appreciation. But I always felt a certain fondness for them, especially Mrs Kim, who always greeted me with a bright smile. She calls me “Ms. Journalist” and almost treats me like a daughter. She even invited me to her restaurant for a Christmas dinner when she found out that my family lives in the East Coast.
One time, I left the restaurant without saying goodbye. As my friend and I crossed the street to my parked car, she ran out of the restaurant, calling out, “Are you leaving already?” And then she waved and said, “Goodbye! Drive home safe!” I bowed my greetings, and now I never leave without saying goodbye first.
My appreciation for the Kims grew infinitely, however, when I finally got the chance to sit down and interview Mrs Kim. I visited one late afternoon while she was busy pleating kimchi dumplings. Her husband was away buying produce at the supermarket.
We shared about an hour or so of conversation. And this time, when I left, I bowed as usual again, but now it was with ten times more respect and admiration. The subsequent article I wrote was easy to write—it practically wrote itself. But it changed my perspective on a lot of things. It came at a right time, too, because I totaled my car very soon after. Perspective. There’s nothing more decisive in your life than how you view things that happen to you.
You can read her story here. And if you ever are in the Koreatown area, I hope you can visit the Kims’ restaurant. Invite me if you need a translator. Once, a non-Korean friend arrived at the restaurant before me, and she had a hard time trying to translate to the Kims that no, she didn’t lose her way.
I’m always astounded that Yu Hyang isn’t as famous as some other Koreatown restaurants, because its food is one of the best I’ve had. But Yu Hyang has its limit because it’s not exactly non-Korean friendly. There are no English translations on the menu, and neither Kims speak conversational English. I don’t think they’re very well-versed in social media, nor can they afford advertising in local newspapers.
But I’m slowly spreading the word. Already, I’ve brought about five different group of friends to Yu Hyang, and each time, all my friends—and they’re all non-Koreans—fell in love with the Kims and their food. I’m telling you, Yu Hyang is a miracle for being kept secret for so long.
Everything in this restaurant is homemade on that very day, from the banchan to the brewed barley tea.
And depending on the season and the price, the banchan changes sporadically.
Napa kimchi and pickled cucumbers are always available though.
Since many of you probably can’t make it down here, let me share Yu Hyang’s menu with you. I’ve pretty much tried all the dishes it has to offer. Even if you can’t speak Korean, you can just blind-point to anything on the menu and I guarantee you it’ll be fabulous.
But first, let me share with you what I self-gratuitously call “The Sophia Dish.”
Okay, I didn’t exactly invent this dish. But this dish isn’t on the menu, and Mrs Kim makes this dish specially for me because I asked for it. And now every time I visit, she knows this dish will always be included in the order.
What it is, is stir-fried soon dae. Soon dae is Korean blood sausage—I’ve written about it a few times on this blog—and it’s one of the specialties at Yu Hyang. Basically, it’s noodles cooked with pork blood, stuffed into pig intestine casing.
Don’t be turned off by the words “blood sausage.” There’s nothing bloody-tasting about this dish. Trust me, I cannot stand the irony taste of animal blood, but I can’t get enough of this dish. Plus, because it’s stir-fried with tons of sweet, spicy sauce, sweet potato starch noodles and vegetables, you won’t even know there’s pork blood in those sausages.
Because this dish isn’t on the menu, Mrs. Kim gets creative each time she makes it. The result is inconsistent: sometimes she uses nappa cabbage, other times she uses white cabbage. Sometimes it’s fiery spicy, other times it’s mild. But it’s always, always, freaking delicious.
Other than stir-fried (my favorite), you can also just get plain soon dae, served like this:
Mrs. Kim makes her soondae a bit different. Many restaurants stuff the intestines with mostly noodles, barley and pork blood, but Yu Hyang’s include vegetables like onions and perilla leaves, and she also bulks up the protein level in there with tofu.
You can also enjoy soondae in a soup, thick and earthy, like this:
The brownish-black seasoning on top is wild perilla seeds. It’s also seasoned with some kind of fermented soybean paste, which contributes to its earthiness. There’s also lots of wild greens in there:
I am personally not a fan of the soup-based soon dae. It’s served with cubes of congealed blood…that’s way too bloody for me. The soup is really good for people who is feeling fatigued and dull, though.
The other top specialty, is Yu Hyang’s Mae-un tang, or Spicy Fish Soup. You can order it as individual stone pot portions such as this…
Or you can order it for a group, served boiling and steaming over a gas burner.
I highly recommend sharing it with a small group of friends. Friends with whom you don’t mind double and triple dipping.
Oh man. This is the BEST meal to have when it’s chilly and windy outside. When you feel a flue creeping up, or when your nose just feels stuffed, or when you’re feeling constipated…Maeuntang is your best friend.
It’s got everything you need on one bubbling cauldron: spice to jolt your metabolism, hot seafood-seeped broth to warm your soul, chunks of tender rockfish and crustaceans to rejuvenate your tired muscles, bucketfuls of fresh greens, mushrooms, onions and soybean sprouts to exceed your nutrient quota, gushes of steam to open up your pores.
Oh man, oh man! I know it looks fiery, but it’s really not as spicy as you think it is. Well, to me at least. I might not be the best person to judge, considering my ridiculous spice tolerance.
But if you’re squeamish about eyes, this might not be the dish for you, because there will be at least six different pairs twinkling up among the steam and broth.
My friend Ebony (above) usually freaks out about eyes, but she endured it this time. Well, actually, I had to help rip shrimp heads apart so that she can eat her crustacean flesh in peace without a glassy eye staring at her.
It was a lot of firsts for this group of friends:
We’re all journalism majors and when Fall semester ended, we celebrated by dining at Yu Hyang.
For Tasbeeh (above), it was her first time eating squid. I didn’t realize that when I ordered this stir-fried squid dish:
It’s squid fried with gochujang, and served with thin wheat noodles.
I’ve been gnawing squid of all kinds since I was old enough to chew, but I guess I can understand why someone who has never tried squid before would approach the idea of eating tentacles with apprehension. Tasbeeh, however, was a brave trooper:
She just bit down and said, “Mmm! Not bad!”
So as not to completely turn off my friends, I also ordered some not-so-exotic dishes, such as this potato pancake:
Wow. Just pure grated potatoes, pressed down into a thick, gooey, crispy pancake. Can’t you just taste and feel the crispness of the potatoes between your teeth?
For them, I ordered the Sophia Dish, and also the ubiquitous Korean BBQ:
It came sizzling on a platter, crowned with wisps of savory steam.
I LOVE that it came with thick, hunky stalks of green onions. It provided such a nice texture, together with the nutty sesame seeds and fried onions.
But here’s the soup version:
Oh wait, there’s more! Mrs Kim also makes one of the best seafood pancake I’ve ever had:
I once asked Mrs Kim where she learned her cooking skills. “Everything is just so scrumptious!” I told her.
And she burst into delighted laughter, saying, “Ho ho ho, that’s what everybody tells me!” Isn’t she endearing? And then she added, “Nobody ever taught me to cook. It’s truly a gift from God. I just intuitively know the right amount of seasoning to use, and I know how to put ingredients together to make something taste good. I thank God every day for these hands.”
Again, perspective. When I meet people like the Kims, I feel inspired to view my own life differently. There’s so much power in thanksgiving—enough to empower others as well.
Read her story. And if you can, taste her cooking. They’re both amazing.