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.
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
• Japanese gourd
• 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.
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.
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.