Eating the upper-reaches of Koreatown:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
Out on the business end of Koreatown, where Wilshire high-rises block out the sun and serious restaurants fade to fast food, So Hyang sits just out of sight. The restaurant is buried under the Equitable Trade building, a ground-level space hidden behind a concrete wall that amplifies every breeze into wardrobe-rustling gusts. Even without the usual weekday bustle, the restaurant is tough to find. But once you learn how to navigate the plaza, So Hyang reveals itself as a different kind of Korean restaurant.
That’s obvious even at So Hyang’s entrance, which plays up a contemporary style similar to the great glass temple that houses Din Tai Fung’s second branch. Beyond So Hyang’s stark white hostess stand is more executive-level décor: private booths enclosed in frosted glass and high-powered hoods suspended above the dining room like pieces of utilitarian art. There’s even an elegant wine cooler.
But unlike some restaurants serving higher-end Korean cuisine, So Hyang isn’t dedicated to fusion food – hissing plates of bulgogi are just as common here as bubbling pots of mandoo guk. Nor is the restaurant focused on a single genus of Korean cooking. Instead, So Hyang casts a wide and welcome net that allows for all sorts of dishes.
It isn’t the only dish in So Hyang’s customary banchan, but the kimchi is the most important. Even sure-handed restaurants can suffer from soggy kimchi: cabbage wilted down to a pulp stained a dull red like the paint peeling off some nearby curb. But at So Hyang, the kimchi leaves a great first impression – bright, crisp and still full of flavor.
That precision carries over to most of So Hyang’s main plates. Aside from the typical orders of kalbi and bulgogi (both of which are plenty good here), the most accessible option is probably a bowl of bibimbap. So Hyang serves five kinds of the rice dish, but unless you require octopus, order the all-vegetable dolsot bibimbap, which comes in a stone pot to keep itself cooking long after the bowl hits the table. As a result, the stone turns the bottom-most layer of rice into almost a meal of its own – a whole sheet of rice fused into one crispy golden cracker.
So Hyang’s noodle dishes don’t earn quite as much attention, but the restaurant delivers some fine renditions nevertheless. Notably good is the bibim naengmyon, a cold mix of chili-soaked buckwheat noodles, slivers of cucumber and half of a hard-boiled egg.
In part because of its suit-and-tie surroundings, So Hyang is often at its busiest during the lunch rush. The restaurant is far from formal, but it’s between those few hours that it feels most at ease, enlivened by the per diems that accompany each congenial handshake. What attracts all those mid-week eaters are So Hyang’s lunch specials. Though none dip below double digits, the specials are the most cost-effective way to eat here. Still, if you happen in during dinner, prices don’t jump much; instead, the menu simply unfolds to offer even more.
On the higher end, So Hyang also prepares some delicate seafood dishes, most of which deploy either black cod or blue crab. But those with expensive tastes should instead eye So Hyang’s royal court cuisine, a trio of progressive dinners derived from the traditions of Joseon royalty. Within these meals, you’ll find less-familiar flavors of plates like yook hwe (a kind of Korean steak tartare) and gujeolpan (an octagonal assortment of shaved meats and vegetables intended for wrapping in tiny wheat pancakes), both of which are served with the kind of inimitable class that places So Hyang right alongside even the most entrenched Koreatown favorites.
So Hyang, 3435 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 123, Los Angeles, (213) 385-5600. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Garage parking. Beer, wine. Food for two: $25-$50; Course meals: $45-$85.