Soban – Los Angeles, CA
The abrupt closing of a beloved restaurant is always a shock. I’ll never forget the day my favorite Szechuan restaurant at the time, Lucky Dragon, closed in the fall of 2007. Expecting to spend the next hour wiping away peppercorn-laced sweat from my brows, I instead found myself staring at a locked door with a handwritten sign saying the restaurant was now permanently closed. My once near-weekly ritual of scarfing down crimson cauldrons of water-boiled fish and piles of blisteringly good fried chicken cubes was no more.
Sad as the demise of Lucky Dragon may have been, life moved on. There were other equally good Szechuan joints around the corner, and I found love in Chung King. Their food numbed my tongue and won my heart.
But what happens when a restaurant closes and there isn’t another to fill the void? With its cozy wooden booths, Sa Rit Gol resembled a country inn and served home-style Korean food. The banchan spread, renowned for its scope and quality, numbered well into the double digits. I loved it. Various kimchi teetered that fine line between fresh and funk, tangy and spicy; bits of candied dried anchovy were deliciously pungent. Some days you’d find baby octopus stir-fried with gojuchang or lotus root gently simmered in a sweet broth.
I fell head over heels for their famous eun dae goo jorim, cod braised in a sweet-spicy sauce so addicting it could double as heroin. My favorite part was the accompanying slices of luscious daikon, edible sponges soaking up the wonderful sauce. Likewise, their pork belly barbeque was stellar. The primal, fatty slabs of meat were nearly worth the inevitable triple bypass heart surgery. And who can forget the delicate mung bean pancakes, magically held together by a gleaming, gossamer crust.
When it closed, I felt lost. Where else would I spend my nights gorging on incredible home-style Korean cooking, fueled by beer, fortified by soju? My search went on for over a year. Olympic Cheonggukang was good but didn’t possess the refinement or selection. Kobawoo House came the closest (their bossam and mung bean pancakes are amazing) but the banchan was no match. And certainly not a soul bested Sa Rit Gol’s legendary eun dae goo jorim.
But sometime last year, my friend Steph told me a new restaurant, Soban, had opened up a few blocks west of where Sa Rit Gol used to be. She said it served some of the best Korean food I’ll ever have, and she was right. My search for great homestyle Korean food finally ended.
Many judge a Korean restaurant by their banchan, and the enormous spread at Soban will surely impress. The selection, which hovers around 15, constantly changes, and nearly every single one is a winner. Take your pick from four different kimchis: the mustard leaf and scallion ones are especially good. Eight namuls (seasoned vegetable dishes) covered my table, including crisp celery sitting in a slightly pungent paste similar to ssam jang, marinated fern stems, parsley stir-fried with sesame oil, and my favorite: marinated soy bean leaves.
You’ll receive slices of egg that are almost custard-like in texture; I like eating it over rice. And speaking of rice, Soban’s is some of the best I’ve had. You get a choice between white or brown rice, and while other places pass off a mix of brown and white rice as brown rice, Soban’s is uniformly brown and mixed with bits of bean, grain, and chestnut.
I imagine the food at Soban is what happens when you take everyday homecooking and put it in the hands of a Michelin-starred Chef. Every dish sings of refinement and deliberation, and the leap from Talented Ajummah to Chef is palpable. The dedication and attention to detail is one rarely seen in Korean cuisine–– can you think of another place where the gojuchang, ssam jang, and doen jang are all made in-house?
Consider the mae woon galbi jjim (spicy braised short rib). It’s one of the best things I’ve eaten this year. The meat itself is like perfect barbeque ribs: tender, not mushy, and retaining a slight chew. I always pick out the pieces with cartilage first— those are my favorite! Whereas other gabli jjim sauce suffer from being watery and limp, with a shallow sweetness from a reliance on sugar, Soban’s tastes like the sugar was completely replaced with dates, lending a raisiny, mellow sweetness. In concert with ginger, garlic, chili powder, sesame oil, and chestnuts, the dish turns sweet, spicy, and tangy, similar to the very best barbecue sauce.
There are other standouts on the menu. The eun dae goo jorim (aforementioned cod dish) is not as spicy as Chunju Han-il Kwan’s and not as sweet as Sa Rit Gol’s, but every bit as flavorful, with the sauce penetrating deep into the buttery fish. Their bibimbap, as all good bibimbap should be, is a study of texture and temperature, with vegetables and seafood arranged over brown rice and topped with a golden fried egg. The accompanying homemade spicy sauce is so tasty you’ll start by gingerly adding it to your bowl but will end up scraping the bottom of the container with your spoon. If there’s anything I’d pass on, it’d be the pajeon (pancake). I tried the seafood version; it’s not bad but I’ve had better.
It wasn’t until my third visit that I ordered and realized Soban’s specialty is gae jang, a raw crab dish that comes in your choice of a spicy or soy-based marinade. You’ve likely seen it served as banchan at various restaurants, but they probably got it from a supermarket, where anyone can buy the marinated crabs still whole, sitting in a sealed plastic box surrounded by a shallow pool of sauce.
Most restaurants don’t make their own gae jang— the labor and time involved in the preparation requires serious dedication and talent. Traditionally, fresh crabs must first be sourced and cleaned then immersed in soy sauce along with ginger, garlic, scallions, and other aromatics. After a day or two, the sauce is repeatedly strained, boiled, cooled, then poured back on top of the crabs to intensify the flavor. Done right, the soy takes on a rich, briny flavor, and contrary to what one may think, is not overwhelmingly salty at all.
I don’t hesitate when declaring Soban’s gae jang to be the best I’ve ever had. Despite not being Korean, I’m a gae jang fanatic. Soban’s is better than the ones I’ve had in Seoul and certainly the best served in Los Angeles. If it’s your first time eating gae jang, you’re in for a treat: grab a piece, and you’ll find yourself enchanted by a giant blob of golden roe so large you’ll wonder if the crab ate nothing but uni its entire life.
Stick a sizable piece into your mouth and suck hard: the crab meat is cold, sweet, and has turned almost jelly-like in texture, a wonderful sensation that I assure you tastes and feels far better than it sounds. The roe ruptures, slathering your mouth in a creamy brininess; and right when you think that one bite gets too rich, the soy sauce marinade kicks in: salty, herbal, sweet, and a perfect foil for the richness. In mere seconds, a cycle of deliciousness has started and ended, but the flavor lingers long after the first bite.
Regain your senses and you’ll instinctively suck again, this time with your tongue darting in to free all the crab jelly out of the crevasses. You will bite down on the shell in hopes of extracting even more goodness. Leave all decorum at the door, this is worth it.
If you’re eating with others, keep a close eye on the crab’s back shell. There’s only one and make sure to take it for yourself! Dinner Darwinism at its finest. Flip the shell over, add a scoop of rice and sauce, and mix it with the guts and innards (make sure to scrape the sides of shell!). It’s like offal porridge. What’s not to like?
4001 W. Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90019