Wednesday, June 10, 2015

NIght out in Koreatown

Since our son is visiting us for a week or so, we'd planned a weekend trip to Jun Won, a great home-style restaurant in Koreatown that I wanted to explore. They're famous for spicy steamed casseroles of fish, recipes the owner's grandmother taught him, and for the good panchan, or complimentary side dishes his mother makes.

Saturday we went to the movies and had pizza on the Westside,  so we figured we'd go to Koreatown on Sunday night.

But I guess I got my wires crossed. We arrived at the parking lot only to find the place closed. We quickly consulted Yelp on our smartphones.  There was a nearby place that specialized in smoked duck, how about that?


"It's kind of a change-up," our son said, "but what about El Parian? It's not far, and on weekends they have birria."

Guadalajara stewed goat isn't exactly Korean steamed cod, but we're nothing if not flexible when it comes to exploring LA's diverse food feasts. We piled into the car and headed off to Pico and Union.

Closed, the accordion gate locked over a dark storefront.

Where to go? What was nearby, and open on a Sunday night?

Photo by James Cottle
Just recently awarded the James Beard American Classics Award, which honors regional establishments, treasured for their quality food, local character, and lasting appeal, Koreatown restaurant Guelaguetza was founded in 1994 by Fernando Lopez, and is today operated by the second Lopez generation.  It's a vibrant part of the Los Angeles Oaxacan community, and its heritage is so authentic it's said that Oaxacan officials stop by whenever visiting LA.

The restaurant's blazing orange exterior is painted with murals by Mexican art group Colectivo LaPiztola, and crowned with a blue-tiled pagoda-like roof - a visual syncretism that fits the heady mix of cultures that is Los Angeles. You pull up to the valet parking in the back of the building, and the broad steps by the door are usually milling with families, some waiting for tables, others waiting for cars.

Inside the huge echoing banquet hall, a live band played, and people clustered in front of the hostess stand. There was a 35 minute wait for a table. "Can we wait in the bar?" we asked.

The back room at Guelaguetza
The bar is in a side room, away from the direct blare of the band. As our son turned to the bar to order, a voice shouted, "Max!"

Fernando Lopez, Jr. went to high school with Max. Now, with his sisters Bricia and Paulina, he runs the restaurant. He was sitting at the bar with another old school pal, Arash.  Moments later,  our drinks appeared, along with a long wooden tray with five memelas, small but hearty corn tortillas smeared with asiento, or pork lard, and topped with a variety of flavors.

Our drinks also appeared as if by magic. [The Man I Love] had a mexcal margarita, while Max and I each got a Garra de tigre, a huge bird-bath of a drink. A frosty slush of Reposado mezcal, house syrup, freshly squeezed lime, Oaxacan spicy salt, it's garnished with two chiles de ├írbol devil horns.

Slushly, with a sweet/salty/chile-hot bite, the smokiness of the mescal went perfectly with my chicken picadillo memela.

Soon, the hostess found us and seated us at a nearby table. At Guelaguetza, the first thing they set at your table is a plate of warm tortilla chips drizzled with coloradito mole and sprinkled with queso cotija. That alone is worth the trip.

We ordered two antijitos, or appetizers. Queso fundido is a melty cheese dip with mushrooms and chorizo.

We also had a campechana coctel, or mixed seafood cocktail. Shrimp, octopus, clams and abalone were served in a giant goblet, with a deliciously sweet tomato broth.

Mole negro in the foreground, tlayuda in the back
For our entrees, we got a tlayuda, a huge crispy blue-corn tortilla layered with black beans, asiento, various types of Oxacan meats, and string cheese, and the restaurant's signature chicken in mole negro, a sauce made with blended chiles, nuts, seeds, spices and Oaxacan black chocolate. It was intense and smoky and, as described by Los Angeles's Pulitzer Prize wining food critic Jonathan Gold, "black as midnight, black as tar, black as Dick Cheney's heart."

I was overwhelmed with the food and the huge slushy mescal drink, so I opted for a glass of horchata, sweet rice water topped with chunks of cantaloupe, chopped pecans, and bright pink syrup of cactus fruit, or tuna.

We glanced over to the bar, where Fernando and Arash were watching the basketball game with two blonde young ladies.  The atmosphere at Guelaguetza is a cheerful family one, with the raised voices of kids and sporting fans alike competing with the music from the band, first playing thumping ranchera, then a rollicking cumbia. Fernando took one lady's hand and began to dance, spinning and twirling.

Just left of the bandstand, the flames of the open kitchen's grills flared as the cooks busily flipped and tonged the sizzling meats, and exhaust fans roared.

We were stuffed absolutely full, but before we could call for the check, the waiter arrived and presented us with dessert - a dish of strawberries with cream and a slice of Oaxacan flan. From the bar, Fernando gave us a nod.

What a wonderful way to conclude a night that began with a disappointment! How lucky can you get?


David Duff said...

It all sounds quite ghastly, except for the strawberries and cream, but at least they do not appear to have served anything in plastic cups - hoorah!

jenn said...

Lovely writing! The food and atmosphere sound divine,