LA, CA: Yong Su San's Korean banquet

We did a 2-week driving trip in May 2015 and this was the highlight meal, due to its uniqueness. I was asked on the Northern CA board to post details. It’s very long, since there were 4 of us and this was an elaborate, multi-course, 2-hr dinner. Here it is:

This stubbornly traditional and rather old-fashioned restaurant resides in Koreatown, a large district in LA that encompasses several neighborhoods under one ever-expanding umbrella. It’s surrounded by AYCE Korean buffets, where for $10-$15/pp you can stuff your face with the usual massive amounts of cheap grilled meats and endless sloppy banchan dishes.

Yong Su San (pronounced “soo sahn”, but most Americanize it with the woman’s name “Susan”) has a large art-filled foyer that looks more like a small hotel check-in desk than a restaurant reception stand. Not that there’s anyone there when you walk in, nor will any of the waitresses do more than cast you an uninterested glance as they duck in and out of the many private rooms. Yup, private rooms. There is only one large room with tables and chairs, and it’s used more as a community gathering place than a place for paying customers. Yong Su San is like the proper, well-dressed Asian grandmother who glares at her grandson who shows up for a family banquet in faded T-shirt and beach thongs, or winces at her granddaughter in mismatched prints and a beaded nose ring.

Eventually if you’re patient, a hostess will show up, apologize and take you into a private room. Most will hold 4-8 people, and reservations are recommended. You can order à la carte, but the real reason to come here is for the kaiseki-style menus at various price points.

DH and I selected the Chung Table D’Hote, while J & Y chose the Hyang Table D’Hote. However, Yong Su San makes the assumption you want to share, so they rearrange things according to what they think best works as the progression of flavors. This, in the end, is what you’re paying them for - Western chefs have nothing on great Asian chefs for arrogance!

So lean back (on those barely cushioned chairs) and enjoy it. The elegantly dressed matriarch is trying to teach you something – namely that there is more to Korean food than endless plates of goopy-sauced fried chicken wings and oversugared BBQ surrounded by kimchi, kimchi, and more kimchi.

The link above shows what the different dishes are on the two tasting menus we chose (each one is for a minimum of two people). However, the blend of the two we received was more interesting anyway.

Soft Creamy Porridge
A small cup, unflavored except for a few black sesame seeds. Jook, or rice porridge, is held to be good for the digestion. It’s been a staple of Asian cuisine since rice was first grown. The first mention of it comes from 3rd century B.C. China, but it was assuredly a mainstay of Asian diets long before written note was made of it. Asians flavor it in various ways. In a banquet, it’s used for the opposite purpose of the Western amuse-bouche: it calms the palate with deliberate neutrality, to ready the diner for the subtleties and elegance of what follows.

Those small bowls were cleared, and two plates were brought in:

Mixed vegetable salad of bean sprouts, radish, and apricot.
Thinly sliced mung bean jelly marinated in sesame oil.
We received these two salads together. Instead of mung bean jelly, the kitchen used mung noodles. I couldn’t tell what the mung noodle salad was dressed with. I’ve never had anything like it, but I’d love to have it again any time the weather is warm! It’s cool and refreshing, looking like a dark green pesto, only better. I could recognize a gentle taste of perilla, a relative of mint that is sometimes mistaken for the (non-edible) coleus.

Our mixed vegetable salad had rice vermicelli instead of bean sprouts, which made DH happy as he’s never a fan of bean sprouts, raw or cooked. The rice noodle salad was equally interesting, with slivers of tart apricot. It was a great contrast to the mung bean noodle salad.

Kaesung style steamed pork.
Described blandly as boiled pork belly and kimchi, this was sensational. The kimchi wasn’t the usual chile-flecked cabbage, but batons of salted spicy cucumber instead. Tender, gently flavored with sweet soya, greaseless: the slices of pork were dynamite with the pickled Japanese cucumber. We could easily have made a meal out of just these two plates.

Baby abalone.
The sliced jellyfish and cucumber with vinegared mustard sauce never arrived. This admittedly didn’t break my heart. I’ve had this dish at several Chinese banquets and it has never impressed me (I prefer jellyfish tossed with sesame oil, instead of Coleman’s dry mustard). At any rate, all of us were much happier with the abalone.

This might possibly the Abalone à la Yongsusan mentioned only on the Hyang Table d’Hote menu. We received two small bowls, each holding a tiny shell. Each shell held: two pieces of chewy/tender baby abalone, along with slivers of shiitake, black cloud fungus, boiled gingko beans, mellow poached/fried garlic slices, and thin flavorful slices of king mushroom that sat in a tasty poaching broth on the bottom.

This was lovely, delicate, and simple. The tiny bit of broth in the bottom of the shell tasted like sweet, salty essence of fresh shellfish. It rivaled anything a Michelin three-starred restaurant would serve, with a lot less pretention at a bargain-basement price. It was stunningly beautiful to taste, completely satisfying in the way that a perfect dish always is. It’s one of those dishes that’s going to stick in my memory for a long, long time.

Crepes with assortment of nine ingredients.
Four tiny, feather-light wheat/egg crepes were in the center of an array of very finely shredded ingredients for fillings. All of them, amazingly, had been hand-chopped into almost gossamer threads. I didn’t write them all down, but contrary to the menu there was no beef or shrimp on our plate, just a colorful assortment of (mostly) vegetables:
• Egg whites
• Egg yolks
• Carrots
• Japanese gourd
• Tripe
• Zucchini
• Shiitake mushroom
There was a dipping sauce, but it was good even without it. Again, very simple, showing off beautiful knifework.

Beef Dish #1: four thin, good-sized slices of beef, fat- and tendon-free.
The slices were a little chewy but not at all tough, lightly dusted with a flour – waterchestnut flour? tapioca starch? - and quickly cooked. Then as they steamed on the plate the coating softened, giving a touch of slipperiness to contrast with the chew of the meat. I’m not sure what cut of beef this was; possibly shoulder clod, from the long fine graining. This was an excellent contrast to the beef short ribs that came later, which had been marinated in the traditional sugar/soya. The slices in this dish had pure beef flavor, unmasked by anything.

Banchan, selection #1.
The waitress brought in a cart with a small brass dragon-framed soup holder and set it to the side of the room, with little bowls of ingredients. This was the soup dish, which needed to cook for a while. Then she set out three dishes of banchan. One held small spicy green peppers, cooked until soft and stuffed with whole tiny anchovies. One was soy-braised peanuts, cooked until they softened in a tasty sweet soy. DH said he remembers the street sellers in Hong Kong selling identically-prepared nuts as snacks. The last was a more familiar relish: daikon, the long icicle radish, cut into neat cubes in a sweet chile pickle. Again, the knifework was lovely: all the cubes were exactly the same size, perfectly hand-cut.

The progression of courses in a formal Asian meal is as carefully choreographed as any upscale restaurant’s Western tasting menu. Next came two fish dishes:

Skewered sea scallop with mushroom sautéed in sesame oil.
Very simple; again an example of precise knifework. The scallops are trimmed, then the mushrooms are also trimmed to match the size and width of the scallops. Each skewer had three scallop pieces separated by mushrooms. This was the pure flavor of the scallop’s meaty minerality against the sweeter, softer mushroom.

Steamed black cod fillet cooked in a ginger, garlic and soy sauce mixture.
Two large pieces of meltingly soft black cod were accompanied by dark brown wedges of turnip. The red-sauced braised turnip wedges were a beautiful match for the cod. Turnips, with their strong bitter flavor, stand up to red-cooking as few vegetables can. Our only criticism of this dish was that they had not bothered to pull out the bones. However, these are long and easily seen.

Jeongol, Dragon Fire Pot.
The soup in an iron pot, hung over a Sterno flame by an impressive L-shaped brass dragon frame, had been bubbling away for about 15 minutes, and was ready to eat. This is a mild broth, flavored with napa cabbage, shimeji and shiitake mushrooms, green onion, and tofu. Cute gourd shapes formed by rice cakes added a decorative touch. It’s a lovely vegetarian soup; all of us enjoyed it.

Seasonal assorted pan-fried dish.
Again, four of two different patties so we could evenly share. One type was yellow, and turned out to be flaked white-fleshed fish in egg batter. The second was more interesting. Through the batter coating it was green, and at first I thought it was spinach. Instead, it was perilla – large leaves of it, wrapping a tasty mixture of ground pork and salted fish in flat square packets. The flour batter gave it some crispness while protecting the perilla leaf. The flavor was excellent. I really liked this and it was entirely new to DH and me. The Chinese don’t use perilla as a traditional ingredient, nor have we ever encountered it used as a leaf wrapping.

Banchan, selection #2.
A more varied assortment of banchan, as follows:
• Salt clams – very salty, these really need rice or a big bowl of noodles!
• Dried shrimp with chile flakes – Very large dried shrimp, well spiced with chiles
• Shredded squid – Superb. We could not figure out how they got so much intense flavor into the dried shredded squid, then made such perfect thin strands. What incredible knifework!
• Spicy peppers in miso (more chile-hot than the previous spicy pepper banchan)
• Japanese cucumbers with pickled jalapenos – sweet pickles with spicy pepper slices, a nice combination
• Baby napa cabbage – with sesame seeds and a hint of fermented fish funkiness

Egg battered King Prawns topped with sliced squash.
These were very different than the usual batter-fried shrimp. This egg batter was full of fine shreds of zucchini, coating the shrimp but leaving the tail exposed. With the green of the zucchini skin showing through, it was as attractive as it was tasty. Very mild flavors, so dipping sauces are encouraged.

Kaesung style wrapped cabbage Kimchi stuffed with radish, pine nuts, dates, and a pickled mix of seafood.
This is the Kaesung Bossam Kimchi, North Korean-style wrapped cabbage. The waitress brought in a small head of cabbage in a bowl. She cut it into quarters with scissors, and unfolded the leaves back to show us how to eat it. It is fermented with the listed ingredients, all chopped very fine and stuffed between the leaves. Just from the description we probably would have never ordered it, but we’re glad we tried it. It had great depth of flavor that one doesn’t normally find in kimchi; a fascinating dish to try and again unique for DH and me.

Y asked the waitress what the difference was between North Korean cooking and South Korean cooking. The answer was that Northern cooking is not as spicy, using a lot of salt/dried fish as well as preserved vegetables. South Korean cooking is hotter, and uses fresh fish and vegetables in greater abundance.

The waitress brought us a small banchan dish of Southern kimchi, which really showed the difference between the two styles! The Southern kimchi has that tart, spicy kick that hits your palate with a jolt. The Northern kimchi is piquant but has a mellowness which rounds off the rough edges, with more complex notes so the familiar Southern kimchi seems almost harsh in comparison.

Beef Dishes 2 and 3. This was beef done two ways: on the bone and without it. On the bone was bulgogi, which every Korean chef makes – but few make it like this. This was like really good BBQ, where the meat still has a bit of chew to it yet is tender. The rich roasted flavor was wonderful, and there was little fat on it. Interestingly, this had no marinade. Because of the thick bone, the grilled meat had a quite different flavor than the thin slices of beef we had in our first beef dish. It was a textbook comparison of how cooking methods and butchery can create very different flavors from the same meat.

The second dish was braised short ribs, stewed until tender in a version of the classic red-cooking, which the Chinese empire spread all over Asia. Stewing gives the beef a completely different texture than grilling, as well as emphasizing the flavor of the cooking sauce. Asians don’t start their stews by browning the meat first in fat, the way European cuisine does. Red-cooking simply simmers meat in a flavored liquid instead of just using water. The meat never gets those crisp browned edges from the Maillard reaction (which is often confused with caramelization) that it does with grilling. Red sauce can be boiled and used again, becoming richer and more complex over time.

The stewed short rib had what we’d judge to be half or less the amount of sugar usually used. These were savory dishes, not sweetly cloying ones.

Both menus listed the Scorched Rice and Soba dishes (listed as Chilled Noodles) as an “or”, e.g., you get one but not both. However, the waitress brought us both in separate courses. We also received an additional rice dish.

White rice with barley.
We had saved a few pieces of the bulgogi for the starch course, and they were lovely together. Extending rice with barley or millet was very common. Rice is the king of crops and food of choice in Asian cuisines, the whiter the better. Grains like barley and millet, however, are cheaper and easier to grow, requiring much less exacting conditions and a fraction of the amount of water (and heat) that rice needs. Extending expensive ingredients like rice and tea with cheap peasant grains, either plain or roasted, was a common practice everywhere. After a while, it became part of most cuisines, although it’s generally regarded as a country cooking tradition.

Scorched rice.
This is the browned rice crust, broken up with water to form a type of jook. It is not flavored, and therefore very bland except for the toasted grain flavor. This was served with a Southern-style tofu miso soup, to mix together.

Chilled noodles and vegetables.
This was soba, buckwheat noodles, served cold. By this time only J was able to take more than a single bite of anything! The rest of us had to take his word for how good they were. On top there was a hard-boiled egg quarter, along with thin shavings of cucumber and daikon. Served with the bowl were condiments consisting of a light vinegar and a dry mustard paste. I’m allergic to buckwheat so couldn’t eat it. J said the vinegar was surprisingly good with the noodles, brightening up their taste. This had a Northern-style miso soup, so less spicy than the one with the Scorched rice.

The finish is ‘Korean punch’, which is a ginger/cassia sugar tea, served hot with a couple of pinenuts floating in it.

Summary:
This was an amazing meal. J hasn’t found another restaurant like it in the LA area, and certainly there’s nothing like it in Northern CA. It’s not as sophisticated as the best Chinese or Japanese banquet food, but it is far beyond the ‘all you can eat’ Korean places that trumpet their gojujang but then use it in everything, so all the dishes taste alike.

Yong Su San is truly a unique experience and a bargain for the price. Expect a leisurely two hour meal, so plan accordingly. They have a good-sized valet parking lot, a mere $2. If you think you know Korean food but haven’t been here…then you’ve missed an important aspect of their culinary culture.

This is true destination food, not only because it’s unique but because it’s endangered by the passing of time. Most of the young Koreans dismiss this as “grandma cooking”, little realizing that someday, if some second- or third-generation restaurateur doesn’t pick up the banner, all that will be left of Korean food will be so Americanized and sugar-laden, it will be unrecognizable as descending from Yong Su San’s exquisite table d’hote banquets.

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this sounds amazing. thanks for the detailed writeup.

This sounds amazing. It looks like the set meals, per person, are around $58? That doesn’t even sound that expensive for this syle meal these days. Prices in the Bay Area have creeped up such that most dishes in a Korean restaurant are $20+ and carefully prepared tasting menus much more.

Thanks for sharing the details of your wonderful meal. I got really curious after reading and googled a bit more about this place. A CNN piece rates the Seoul branch of this place as one of the 10 best Korean restaurants. Set aside whether one believes in lists like these, but if one is to believe that this place is in the upper echelons of Korean places, then $58 is indeed a steal, especially for I can’t even keep track of how many dishes you got.

What would be the reason that you said its not as sophisticated as other cuisine’s banquet food? In what aspects?

I’d have to believe that this style of food would be for occasions like more important family gathering, marriage, business meetings, etc? And the parents will drag the young ones to these meals regardless of whether they want to be there or not. When these young ones grow older and move beyond the fried chicken stage, they will start to appreciate these more… With that said, if there aren’t new immigrants from the ‘motherland’ to keep the cuisine honest, all cuisines will start to ‘stray’, not just Korean.

On the Gaesung style North Korean cuisine (from that same article):

If the Jeollado style of royal cuisine is, as Gang says, the “boss” of Korean food, then the food from Gaesung, the former capital during the Koryo dynasty, is its main rival. Where Jeolla food is boldly, almost aggressively, flavored, the food of Gaesong is clean and more subtle.

I’d be curious how popular this cuisine is back in South Korea. I’d assume this type of cuisine in North Korea would only be accessible to rich people with ties to the ruling party so wondering how the knowledge of this cuisine gets passed on outside North Korea with the state not open for immigration. Any idea where the chef came from and trained?

I find it hard to explain the difference in sophistication between the Asian cuisines, if you’ve never had the same foods I’ve had. We have all had our own unique experiences!

**PLEASE **take the following as generalities! I’m not trying to start arguments here, just answering sck’s question re my personal opinion.

I was fortunate to experience a dazzling number of phenomenal high-end meals during a period when Asian food was on the rise as true gourmet cuisine, not glorified street food or high-priced fusion or el cheapo ethnic. Also, during this time I married into an immigrant family from Hong Kong with upper middle-class Chinese/Portuguese/British roots.

DH and I have had one stunning Vietnamese/French banquet, several exquisite kaiseki Japanese banquets and at least a dozen high-end Chinese banquets, being lucky to be in the right place/right time back in the high-flying '70’s and '80’s.

It was a time when some highly-skilled, high-end chefs were coming over from Asia. There was no such thing as fusion, and French food (our preferred cuisine) was in a terrible funk. This was the first attempt by Asian restaurateurs to introduce Americans to something better than chop suey and chicken teriyaki. All of them eventually failed and closed altho a few of the SF Chinatown places managed to hang on for another decade. Cheap food took over and eventually evolved into the fusion and street food cuisines currently popular.

China is recognized as the mother of all Asian cuisines. It is the 1000-lb gorilla in Asian history, possessing unimaginable wealth and power. Its only rival is India, and in those SE Asian countries where the two cuisines met is that lively mingling of what could be called the first Asian fusion food. Add in native dishes and colonialism and you can trace entire political influences through a country’s dishes.

In China, because of its geographic/political position in history, great wealth did what it always does: creates unique banquet food for the very, very rich and powerful. Over millennia, with enough time/money/regional influences, three separate cuisines start to show up.

Those are: home cooking, restaurant cooking, and banquet cooking. Home cooking is exactly that, and it’s where the “this is the way my grandma cooked it” starts those arguments of ‘whose [xxx dish] is the more authentic’! It can be wonderful food, absolutely! But it is dependent on two things: one person teaching another, and the family always having enough money to afford to feed everyone. One good war and the fragile links fall apart, all too often.

Restaurant cooking is not universal and is the youngest branch. It comes from street sellers and butchers, where it’s cheaper/easier to buy certain foods than it is to do for oneself. Become known for a specialty and just as anywhere else, the world, or at least the local neighborhood, will beat a path to your door. Eventually as a village gets established your local drinking/eating establishment - the Chinese version of a pub - becomes the social center, where men meet and talk. Competition springs up: “*Our *food is better than their food, so everybody comes and drinks here now.”

Banquet cooking are those dishes whose ingredients are costly/rare/perishable; or whose prep takes considerable skill and time. Some dishes will have traceable roots to home/restaurant foods but they are elevated to a level 99% of the people could not afford to copy. It is the food of the aristocracy and those underneath who imitate them.

To me, Chinese cuisine is one of the three greatest cuisines in the world. It has a breadth and depth of dishes which comes from thousands of years of economic and political might. At a time when traveling a hundred miles was an impossible obstacle to the average person, banquet cooking could and did bring costly ingredients hundreds of miles to the palaces - on a daily basis.

As in France (much later) and Indian (same timespan), Chinese banquet cooks had massive kitchens and hundreds of assistants. They were rewarded for developing new techniques and offering new flavors. Creativity was prized, and thus eating well is a luxury commodity. You can’t poach a grandmother, but you can certainly lure a fine chef (short of a palace chef!) away from your competing peer or business, to come work for you instead.

Japanese food has an exquisite balance but a severely limited variety. Historically it was an economically poor country compared to China (and a big reason why the two nations loathe one another and have had a lot of wars vs the other). It makes the most of a limited range and achieves perfection within those limits - no small feat! But it does not have the produce, the meats, the long history of luxury feasting and extensive commodity trade, that China and India enjoyed.

Let’s put it this way - the most famous Japanese dishes aren’t Japanese at all. Tempura is Portuguese. Teriyaki is a variant of Chinese red-cooking. Sushi is something I grew up with as picnic food, so I regard it in the same vein as cheap macaroni salad. Sashimi is just raw fish; rich people ate meat if they could afford it.

The Korean meal was exquisitely executed and beautifully designed. The courses were flawless in the adherence to the classic progression of flavors - a progression established by the Chinese a thousand years ago. There was the Japanese influence (Korea was a province of Japan for decades after they wrested it away from China, which had conquered it millennia ago; all Korean rulers used to pay annual tribute to Chinese emperors) where the most is made of a limited variety of ingredients.

Yong Su San is sophisticated Korean food. But as a country they can’t match the history and wealth that was China. That China is gone now. But remnants of the banquet cooking live on, because it is a luxury commodity that allows people to show off, even if it’s only Communist Party officials, LOL.

Today’s access for middle-class people to enjoy high-end cuisine is unprecedented in history. It is an amazing and wonderful time for all of to be eating!

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A lot of kitchen talents disappeared during the period of societal upheavals that was the Cultural Revolution, when aristocrats, culture and wealth were persecuted. With that, the top echelon kitchen talents that served the aristocrats became irrelevant. Since cooking knowledge is passed down through apprenticeship in the kitchen, this void in the culinary history might have caused some of the knowledge of banquet cooking to be lost.

ETA: Other than Cantonese, kaiseki/ sushi, the top echelon of cooking of other cuisines in Asia just isn’t commonly available outside its place of origin/ Asia, with Yong Su San seems to be a curious outlier, for Korean, and perhaps Jai Yun for Jiangnan as a local example. Nothing around Indian, Beijing, Shanghai, Sichuan, Vietnamese, Thai, and other SE Asian cuisines that I can think of, but would be obviously interested to know if there are.

Locally, this paragraph reminds me of the chef talents that got lured into cooking at tech corporate cafeterias, e.g. Andy Wai to LinkedIn to keep the employees of Chinese/ Asian descent satisfied gastronomically.

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There were a few top-notch, upscale Indian, Thai, Chinese and Korean in SF in the 1980’s. There was a Viet place but it was private; you had to know the owner and order in the language!

But they couldn’t last - tourists found the food weird, locals weren’t interested except on special occasions. Banquet food is not cheap, it never has been.

I would be willing to wager that Yong Su San either owns its building or has a long-standing agreement with the landlord. It’s hard enough to offset rising food and labor costs, but add in drastically increasing rents and it kills the profit picture stone-cold dead.

Look at The Fat Lady/Oakland to see what I mean re rent. Their prices are lower and portions are bigger than any of their competition, for the simple reason they OWN their building, and have done so since 1969 - so they are pre-Prop 13 as well. It’s a huge advantage.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold