Battle Seolleongtang: Anna's vs. Jang Mo Gip
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You could be excused for never having heard of seolleongtang. It isn't on the radar for most people who are just starting to delve into Korean cuisine, because it's never sold in barbecue restaurants or soon tofu places. You could be excused for not knowing how to pronounce it (sull-lung-tang will get you close enough).
It isn't even a particularly compelling soup on paper: made by taking the leg bones of an ox or steer and simmering them in water until the broth turns milky white and thickens almost imperceptibly. That's all that's required to be in seolleongtang. Most places add thin slices of beef, often brisket; some add noodles.
It's easy to tell the people eating seolleongtang for the first time; they're the ones whose faces, upon delving in and taking that first eager bite, plummet into a crestfallen moue. Seolleongtang by itself has next to no taste; it's the equivalent of taking a big swig of low-sodium beef broth from a carton. Experienced seolleongtangueros know what those bowls on the table are for: one contains coarse sea salt and one contains chopped green onions. Add a heavy sprinkling of salt and mix it in with your spoon; taste it and add more salt. As you add salt to the mix, the complex flavors start to come out and you are rewarded with a soup that tastes like the cleanest, brightest pho you've ever had. A few onions sprinkled in provide an herbal, grassy taste to bring it even more forward.
You'll find yourself thinking about seolleongtang when it's grey and dreary out; it worms its way into your brain. Pho is an eager puppy, ready to please from the get-go; seolleongtang is a cantankerous Siamese cat, one it's surprising to miss on a trip away.
When you order seolleongtang, you'll be given a stainless steel bowl of rice. You can eat it separately or with the panchan (side dishes), you can take a spoonful and dip it in the broth, or you can do what most hungover Koreans do: dump the entire thing in the soup bowl with little ceremony.
Anna's Mondu, a tiny store in a dilapidated strip mall on the eastern end of Garden Grove's increasingly underdesignated Korean District, is known mostly as a place to buy bags of frozen Korean dumplings (mandu) to cook at home, but the shop has recently redecorated somewhat and added a few more tables; you can have mandu, kimbap or seolleongtang there, and bask in the warmth of the couple who run the place.
Anna's seolleongtang is slightly thin and contains just a few bits of meat; the portion is enormous, but I found myself adding the kimchi directly to the broth, trying and failing to amp up the richness. As I perused the menu on the wall between bites, I discovered that there was an option to add soondae--Korean blood sausage--to the soup. That would have taken care of the richness I found lacking, but sadly I had already eaten most of my bowl before I noticed.
The panchan at Anna's are very tasty, since there is an excellent kimchi store next door. The radish kimchi is the best option, quickly followed by the curry pickled daikon and the sliced Korean pears in chile sauce.
Jang Mo Gip (the last word is pronounced "jipp") is a trio of Korean restaurants specializing in seolleongtang and haejangguk (literally, "hangover-cure soup"), one in the Korean District, one in mysterious La Palma, and one in the very furthest reaches of Buena Park, just behind the Orange Curtain from La Mirada.
They don't particularly cater to non-Koreans at Jang Mo Gip: while the sign at the Beach Boulevard location does identify the place as "Jang Mo Restaurant", there is precious little in the way of English to guide the intrepid explorer. Even the table tent menus are written exclusively in Korean. Don't despair: after the initial shock, they'll bring an English menu.
Jang Mo Gip has absolutely enormous bowls of salt and onions on each table, and the soup comes out quickly, steaming hot, and loaded with brisket. You can choose glass noodles (made of mung bean starch) or rice noodles; go for glass noodles, since you will have a bowl of rice with your soup. You will also be given a glass of rice drink called sungnyung and a few panchan. The radish kimchi is standard, but the Napa cabbage kimchi is excellent and fresh, but the best is miyeok--the soft kelp the Japanese call wakame--with a pool of slightly sweet chile-garlic sauce.
The seolleongtang is much, much thicker and heartier here; adding salt really brings out the essence of beef. The glass noodles, impossible to catch with the spoon, add a much-needed textural contrast (but, obviously, not much taste) to the dish and the thinly-sliced brisket is cooked separately to provide a fresher beefy flavor.
After your meal at Jang Mo Gip, you'll be given a dish of shikhye, a cold rice soup made with more than a little bit of ginger and sugar. It shocks the system out of the meat coma it's been in and revives the palate a little bit.
Jang Mo Gip is the clear winner of this week's Dueling Dishes battle, but don't write Anna's Mondu off: their mandu, especially their wang mandu ("king dumplings"), are things of beauty, and they are perhaps the most gracious Korean restaurateurs in Orange County.
If you decide to seek this out for yourself, you'll have greater success if you can read it in Korean (a skill, incidentally, which is easily learned--the Korean writing system was designed to be regular and easy to use, which causes justifiable pride in Koreans). The word you are looking for is 설렁탕: seol-leong-tang.
Anna's Mondu, 9972 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove; (714) 530-0102.
Jang Mo Gip, 4546 Beach Blvd., Buena Park; (714) 228-0767.
Jang Mo Gip (not reviewed), 9711 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove; (714) 534-1340.
Jang Mo Gip (not reviewed), 4877 La Palma Ave., La Palma; (562) 402-7212.