On a chilly winter evening or the morning after a long night of drinking, there’s nothing more life-affirming to me than a steaming hot bowl of soup. Enter Koreatown, where the options to sate my craving are endless: the multitude of beef tangs (broths) at Sun Nong Dan; LA Tofu House’s bubbling cauldrons of soondubu; the iconic milky, oxbone-based namesake of Han Bat Sul Lung Tang; the ultra-pale, subtly delicious dwaeji gukbap at Jinsol Gukbap; the red-tinged bowls topped with seafood at Mountain Noodle; the hand-cut noodle and dumpling soups at Hangari Kalguksu; Chunju Han-Il Kwan’s army stew, served hot pot-style; and the list could go on and on. The choices seem unlimited, but I’d like to make the case to allow room in your stomach for one more: Lee Ga (pronounced “ee-ga”), located in the same strip mall plaza as 40-year-old neighborhood institution Kobawoo House.
Open for a little over a year, the Vermont Avenue eatery serves an amazing take on North Korean-style mul naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles in icy beef broth), steamed kimchi dumplings and an array of hearty, mostly beef-based soups, braises and stews made with Korean taste buds in mind, but available for all to enjoy. The chewy housemade buckwheat noodles also come in the form of bibim naengmyeon, which douses them in a medium-spicy sauce flavored with gochujang and red pepper flakes. I prefer the subtler mul version, which offers a tangy, beefy flavor worthy of sipping to the very last drop, especially after lightly seasoning it with the mustard and rice vinegar available at each table. This might quite well be Koreatown’s best naengmyeon—though I’m sure fans of Ham Hung, Yu Chun and MDK Noodle would try to fight me on that.
While banchan fans will find Lee Ga’s selection more limited, the two types of housemade kimchi and a rotating third item still satisfy as appetizers and sides to each cozy meal. The enormous dumplings, which come paired with an onion and scallion dipping sauce, are a no-brainer; a solo diner could easily make a meal out of a single order. Each perfectly steamed mandu comes packed with beef and vegetable or mixed kimchi, pork and beef filling; they’re now my favorite dumplings in Koreatown. Lee Ga also specializes in seolleongtang, though I wouldn’t put their rendition of milky oxbone soup above the exemplary one at Han Bat Sul Lung Tang, and offers a spicy vegetable-rich pork gukbap—the latter being a general term for "hot soup with rice."
Aside from cold noodles, oxbone soup and dumplings, Lee Ga serves a lot of beef-based family-style dishes. There’s the galbijjim, or spicy, soy-braised beef ribs, which arrive in a bone-in stew much unlike the famous, far less saucy version with cheese set aflame at Sun Nong Dan. Accompanied by rice cakes, slices of squash and plenty of onions, it’s a cozy, homestyle take on the heavy, slightly sweet beef dish. I also sampled the gopchang jeongol—a bubbling intestine hot pot—and found it slightly bland, though I’ve yet to try the other versions using bulgogi or regular beef. Another family-style dish at Lee Ga worth seeking out is the seok galbi gui, a towering pile of soy-marinated bone-in short ribs and onions on a bed of thinly sliced sweet potatoes. The marinade hints at sweetness without being overpowering, similar to the hot stone bulgogi, which comes with glass noodles and a tangle of herbs on top. The various large-format sooyook items—which literally translates to “water meat”—are delicious if you’re craving a mild hot pot preparation with seolleongtang broth, but perhaps not the point of dining here.
As with many Koreatown’s no-frills strip mall joints, service is brisk and to the point here. Most days, chef-owner Woosuk Lee is around and more than happy to step in and provide napkins, a refill of banchan or even a clear plastic bib to avoid splatters. All in all, Lee Ga provides a quick, satisfying and affordable meal. Unless you’re overordering as I usually do, expect to pay $40 to $50 for a filling multi-course meal. At a time where most new L.A. restaurants I visit cost an average of $125 to $150 per head after tax and tip, I consider that a major win.
The vibe: No-frills but sleek and clean.
The food: Housemade buckwheat noodles, steamed dumplings, and an array of mostly beef-based stews and soups. Highlights include the mul naengmyeon (cold noodles in beef broth), kimchi mandu (dumplings) and seok galbi gui (soy-braised short ribs).
The drink: A refrigerator of soju, makgeolli (sparkling rice wine) and beer, plus soft drinks and sparkling water.
Time Out tip: Remember to bring cash for the valet, though the attendants aren’t always there. When they are, the valet attendants don’t always take Zelle.