Koreatown never stops surprising me. My experiences in L.A.’s most exciting dining neighborhood go dozens deep, but there always seems to be some hidden-in-plain-sight culinary specialist that heightens my already considerable appreciation for Koreatown. For instance, Buil Sam Gye Tang has been open since 1988. The owner, a woman named Kune Bae Park, hails from Busan in southeast South Korea, and with her son, specializes in samgye tang, a chicken soup that packs medicinal properties.
The space, which shares a strip mall with a liquor store and pizza parlor, is plain, with wood tables, prints of Korean villagers on the wall and Korean programming playing on a flat screen TV. Buil Sam Gye Tang is not exactly a place to linger, but the meal is pure comfort.
Panchan consisted of crunchy chicken gizzards, since they’re readily available, along with typically pungent kimchi, and chile-slathered zucchini. The usual accompaniments include raw garlic and vegetables and fermented bean paste.
My pick was Young Yang Samgye Tang ($12.99), a bubbling soup containing a whole young chicken, chewy medicinal tubers called ginseng, sweet glutinous rice filling, sweet jujubes, soft spreadable garlic, mung beans, scallions, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, scallions and sweet potato. Pull the juicy chicken meat from bones and dip it in Korean sea salt.
There are variations. Young Gye Tang has no ginseng. Han Bang Samgye Tang contributes deer antlers, milk vetch root, Korean angelica and wolfberry fruit. Herb Samgye Tang contains “lacquer tree,” and Jeon Bok Samgye Tang adds abalone, if you’re feeling luxxe.
Other restaurants in Koreatown serve samgye tang, but this is the only spot I know of that serves the medicinal soup exclusive of all other dishes. The focus is noticeable in the bowl, and could easily became a regular spot, even when I’m feeling well.