Sunday, December 25, 2011

Han Bat vs Mountain Cafe: Sizing Up Korean Sick Soups

For some reason, just before I travel my body always gives way to the bug du jour - it's as if it'd been holding on to get through the stress of leaving everything in a good place at work, at home, before going on vacation - and just when all is set to go, it decides it's ok to throw in the towel on my immune system.

As I save my only international trip of the year for the holidays, I was anxious when I started feeling a cold coming on just before my trip. No time / not in the mood to cook - I went in search of foods to soothe body and soul, to fuel the fight against the virus before it gets full blown.

I remembered a Korean 'sick soup' that supposedly does wonders for hangovers and/or illness - Sul Lung Tang. And according to a quick Google search, one of the 'best' of these comes from a hole-in-the-wall in Koreatown, that specializes in nothing but this soup: Han Bat Shul Lung Tang (not sure why they spell Sul with an "h", other places do not - any Koreans out there can shed some light on the correct spelling?)

Han Bat is very much bare bones (pun intended) - a no-fuss storefront on a less trafficked side of 5th street, unglamorously located across the way from a Carl's Jr. With just a handful of tables and a short menu that fits in a photo frame on the wall - your choices are basically beef soup, or boiled beef soup - and what types of meat/offal to put into it.

Even while nursing a cold, I refuse to go for boring old 'flank' or 'brisket' beef, and I wasn't about to pay over $16 for 'boiled beef' soup - so I ended up with Sul Lung Tang with Intestine, Tripe & Spleen ($8.28).

Sul Lung Tang in general is made by slow simmering ox bones - typically 12-15 hours by most accounts. This process results in a nutrient rich broth that is said to help boost your immune system, and also is soothing to eat (in marked contrast to bold flavors of more familiar Korean foods that involve kimchee or barbecue).

I expected to love this soup - afterall, ramen broth makes me go all weak in the knees, which is another slow-simmered soup, but just made with pork bones instead of ox (and ok maybe bonito as well). And I love offal.

But despite best of intentions, I intensely disliked Sul Lung Tang. As it's the first time I'd had it, I'm not sure if it's Han Bat's preparation or the type of soup in general that I don't like the taste of. But to me the milky looking broth had a slightly gelatinous consistency (probably from the collagen in the bones) and lacked layers / depth of flavor - it basically reminded me of cloudy dishwater. That you can feel coating your throat and stomach as it goes down (which I suppose would be great for hangovers - so no use to me since I've long outgrown those days!) Even the offal didn't help - there were only a few narrow strips of tripe, and the intestines were a bit too slimy for my taste. The spleen was fine but didn't contribute a lot in taste to the soup. I do like glass noodles, so if I had to say one positive thing about this soup, I would say it's the inclusion of the noodles. Again it's my first, so perhaps I would give the soup another chance at another place, but at Han Bat I could barely finish my bowl.

The banchan (side dishes) were an entirely different story: Han Bat serves up a bowl of kimchee, a bowl of radish kimchee, and a bowl of rice (included in cost of soup). The kimchee was delicious, perfect balance of sour/spicy with a satisfying crunch. And they also set down a giant plastic bin of chopped scallions that you can add to the soup for flavor - but again nothing added to the soup helped - we just weren't compatible.

A little while later, just before my trip, knowing I was still feeling under the weather, Sophia from Burp and Slurp recommended Mountain Cafe for a dinner meet up via Marilyn from Nomlog.

I hadn't heard of the place before that night, but a quick search online and it was clear this place was indeed well known for two sick foods: Abalone Porridge, and Ginseng Chicken soup, and that both would be amazing.

This hole-in-the-wall was much different - it's a much smaller space, with maybe 5 tables max, squeezed in around the open kitchen, where two mom/grandma figures toiled to bust out bowl after bowl of steaming deliciousness. The menu offers wider range and diversity than Han Bat, but because of the open kitchen set in a tiny space, and personal service from the staff of three, it feels a bit more like you're getting a home-cooked meal.

Sophia ended up not being able to join us, so Marilyn and I grabbed a 2-top and excitedly checked out the menu. I knew we were probably going to go with the signature soups, but it was fun looking through their other menu offerings (the translations are also pretty amusing - like the "soup made from the bones of the four legs of an ox". Would it taste 'off' if you only put in 3 legs? And why, whatever would they mean by "good for your stamina"?).

Though Abalone Chowder is their top seller, I'm fairly used to 'jook' or rice porridge from Chinese cuisine, and it's fairly simple to make - so I opted for the richer sounding Ginseng Chicken Soup ($10.65) - made with a whole chicken, ginseng, garlic, jujube, ginger and sweet rice.

It was love at first bite - the giant stoneware bowl came steaming hot, and you could smell the gingery goodness from 10 feet away. Where most people would say blander foods are better when you are sick (taking it easy on the digestive system), that is exactly the stuff of foodie nightmares, and exactly why I hate being sick. Viruses harm my body, but bland foods kill my soul. Ginseng Chicken Soup thankfully rails against convention - it's full of amazing, unabashed layers of rich flavor, yet still packed with soothing effects that are immediate - one spoonful and it warms you to the core, nourishing and coaxing your body (and soul) back to health on impact.

I loved the interplay of flavors and textures here - delicious chicken broth is elevated with subtle sweetness from jujube (dates), bit of heat from the ginger, slight bitterness from ginseng, held together by fragrant but not overwhelming garlic; tender chicken meat is offset by crunchy scallions, with sweet rice adding textural interest. AND you get an entire chicken in the soup, so it makes for a filling meal!

THIS is chicken soup for the soul.

As if the amazing soup were not enough on its own, the ladies also bring out four dishes of AYCE banchan: kimchee, radish kimchee, some sort of sesame/soy/sugar marinated cabbage, and beef stewed in soy-based sauce with shishito peppers. All four were tasty, and loved that you can get unlimited refills of each.
The beef in particular tasted great when mixed in with the Abalone Chowder ($7.85) - Marilyn was a sport and got this so we could try their other signture dish.

This turned out to be one of the best rice porridges I have ever tasted - not so much for innovative ingredients (there are others that serve up more creative combinations, and in larger volumes), but for flavor and consistency.

It's easy to make congee / jook / rice porridge way too bland - so bland you get more sick from eating it (in my view - perpetuating the cycle of sickness through deathly boring soup for the uninspired soul).

Mountain Cafe's abalone chowder, though small in number and pieces of abalone (to be expected, given the price!) delivers on big flavor. And though the addition of raw egg is not a new concept, for some reason the way that Mountain Cafe prepares their chowder and egg, once you break the yolk and spread it throughout the porridge, it becomes very creamy and smooth, and tastes like luxury.

My initial reservations about getting this since you can make it at home fairly easily (in theory)? Gone after tasting. Plus, who wants to cook while sick anyways?

Of the two at Mountain Cafe, I will say Ginseng Chicken Soup is my favorite for its complexity and value (whole chicken / meal in a bowl for just over $10!)

In the match-up of Han Bat vs. Mountain Cafe - Mountain Cafe wins with a K.O. quickly seized in round 1 (both of the cold/flu bug and of its heavier weight competitor - in concept and popularity anyway - of ox bone soup).

Now, already on the trip I had been so looking forward to, and eating my way through the culinary heaven of Hong Kong - I still can taste that Ginseng Chicken Soup in my mind, and crave it. Will definitely be back to Mountain Cafe when I return to LA, whether or not I am sick.

Thanks, ladies of Mountain Cafe, for getting me better in time to enjoy my trip! (And thanks Sophia for the rec, and Marilyn for another fun dinner adventure!)

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%

Han Bat Shul Lung Tang
4163 W 5th St, Los Angeles, CA 90020
Ph: 213.388.9499

Han Bat Shul Lung Tang on Urbanspoon

Mountain Cafe
3064 W 8th St, Los Angeles, CA 90005
Ph: 213.487.7615

Mountain Cafe on Urbanspoon

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