"Eh, Italian food. You add clams to some pasta and charge $25." That was the reaction that Sam, the owner of Ham Hung in Koreatown, had when I told him that I used to cook in Italian restaurants. I keeled over laughing because I knew he was right. Sam's funny and painfully aware about the restaurant business. Ham Hung has been around since 1985. They went to their new location off Olympic in 2011, so he's seen the evolution of Korean food in Los Angeles. Every time I see Sam he's wearing a pair of light blue jeans with a tucked in shirt and belt. His cellphone case is attached to his hip so he knows where it is at all times. He's serving traditional food, and baby that cellphone clip matches the menu. The conversation is easy; talking to weathered restaurant owners is usually where I feel most comfortable. We discuss growing up in Seoul, coming to the States, and why he doesn't do sashimi anymore, "I was driving to Santa Barbra every morning. Too much work, man." I circle the conversation back to overcharging for low quality Italian food and he laments, "I can't do that here." He's right again.
The first time I met Sam, my friend and I had stumbled into Ham Hung and ordered veal intestine. The server said, “It’s spicy” and I responded, “That’s great.” Then, she went to get Sam so that he could explain to me that it was not just spicy, but “pretty spicy.” I imagine this happens a lot at Ham Hung: A guy like me walks in, orders something with chili sauce, then complains because the nothing-in-English menu full of food that isn't for you didn't have a picture of a fucking pepper on it to signify it was hot. We finish our veal intestine, and Sam brings us 2 dishes of cold naengmyeon (North Korean cold noodles). My friend doesn't understand why we've been brought free food, but I do. We got the, "good hungry boy" treatment. You see – my friend and I showed that we loved food, that we appreciated the restaurant, and that we could eat well. I was a cook, once. Anytime a customer showed the slightest bit of taste or passion, I always gave them the good stuff. Sam knew we were good hungry boys, so he brought us the dish he was proud of, what he hangs his hat on. It's also possible that the restaurant was slow and he just wanted to find how much we could eat before tapping out. I once fed a friend an entire plate of seared diver scallops, piled high like fat stacks of cash, just to see if he could finish them all. I get it.
I'm back at Ham Hung today. It was 109 degrees just 16 hours ago, and the place is packed at 10AM. It's cooler, but that lingering threat of 109 didn't just suddenly go away, either. The restaurant is packed with people who want naengmyeon. Most of Sam's naengmyeon is served Hamhung style. Hamhung is the 2nd largest city in North Korea, and also the restaurant's namesake (The restaurant is spelled Ham Hung, the city spelled Hamhung). What exactly is Hamhung style naengmyeon? Well, that depends on who you talk to. To explain his dish, Sam immediately offers up some musings about its rival, Pyongyang naengmyeon. The distinctions are coastal. Pyongyang is North Korea's capital and Hamhung's west coast counterpart. The Pyongyang style cold noodles involve a tangy beef broth served with Korean pear, cucumber, protein, and boiled egg. The broth and noodle are the key difference to each coasts' serving style. In Pyongyang, the noodles are made from buckwheat, and when coupled with that flavorful, chilly beef broth – it begins to vaguely resemble ramen. The noodles are submerged in tasty liquid. There is a version of Pyongyang style naengmyeon at Ham Hung, and that mellow broth is vitalizing. Sam is reluctant to call it Pyongyang style because he doesn't use buckwheat noodles. "They're harder to digest," he argues. He mentions that Kim Jon-un recently brought Pyongyang style naengmyeon to the summit in South Korea. Pyongyang style is getting the hot press right now, but what Sam specializes in is potato starch noodle. What he's proud of is his Hamhung style naengmyeon.
To make the potato starch noodle, Sam uses an extruder; one of only 10 in Los Angeles made specifically for naengmyeon, he says. He emphasizes the labor-intensive process to create the noodles from scratch, "Google 100 restaurants that serve naengmyeon, and I bet 90 of them use frozen noodles. I would bet you. It's too much labor. Kitchens are too small." The potato starch mixture, which goes through an extruder several times, creates an elastic, bonded noodle that is indestructible in comparison to the buckwheat. Sam's noodles are delightfully chewy, filling, and seemingly endless. They come right out of the extruder and into boiling water before they are shocked in an ice bath (in case you had any questions about freshness, it doesn't get any better than a machine churning out noodles directly into a pot). They cook in mere seconds, and the result is what feels like an invincible piece of food; a texture you've likely never had, and one that isn't all that common to begin with. It's one of the best noodles I've ever eaten, and few people are doing it right.
Hamhung naengmyeon shines through its east coast qualities. It doesn't woo you with a tangy, refreshing broth like the west coast style. Hamhung naengmyeon is dressed in a red chili sauce, and Sam's red chili sauce has just a bit of the Pyongyang style beef broth – a compromise of sorts, giving his naengmyeon a more soup-like quality, "So the noodles absorb the sauce." It gets served in a stainless-steel bowl to help keep everything cold. Mixed with skate, pork, or beef, and served with a thermos pitcher of hot beef broth, the naengmyeon Sam makes represents the perfect summer meal: A constant cooling and warming of your body that feels surprisingly pleasant on a warm day, but also one that can be enjoyed year-round, unlike the Pyongyang style which is more of a Summer dish.
Sam beams when he talks about version of naengmyeon. His father grew up just outside Hamhung, and it's how he learned to cook the classic North Korean dish. He thinks the style his father showed him is often underappreciated, "Nobody makes it like I do. Some people don't even acknowledge Hamhung style exists. But my friend's Uncle had a restaurant [serving Hamhung style noodles], so, explain that." It makes sense that a dish like Hamhung naengmyeon would get lost a bit. It was a city damaged by the Korean War only to later be ravaged by famine in the 90's. Sam uses the landscape to describe his dish – the modest potato that makes the full and nourishing noodle, the spicy red chili sauce needed to get through Winter – Hamhung was a desolate place of exile. Sam muses, "When you're in exile, where do they send you? Fucking Timbuctoo." He later confides to me that that they get Hamhung style wrong in Seoul, where he grew up, "They put the sauce on the side." He's now rubbing his temples and I'm smiling, "You wouldn't just top pasta with sauce, would you? You'd toss it in the pan." Sam's talking to me like I only understand Italian food, and he's not wrong. A noodle not tossed in sauce is a missed opportunity. It thrives when it becomes infused with the flavors of the pan. He then eases up on the South Korean interpretation, "But, they do a lot of business in Seoul. Here, we have time to toss everything." 50% of Sam's sales are his naengmyeon, but still he runs into problems with customers. The noodles often require to be cut with scissors, but I get the sense that's for people who aren't gamers. "I don't cut mine when I eat them," he tells me. Naengmyeon is an old school dish. Most people don't grow up eating it, and they especially aren't familiar with the rubber band-like potato starch noodle, "We get complaints all the time because the younger generation isn't used to it." You can look at Sam's face and see a hundred Yelp reviews.
"Business is OK," he tells me. Finally, I see an opportunity to bust Sam's balls, "Hey man, this place should be filled with white people." We're outside now because he wants a cigarette. He laughs, tilts his head, and says with modesty, "They don't know yet."