It’s 51 degrees in Koreatown, and it feels cold. This is, of course, where east coasters love to take shots at Angelenos. “This isn’t cold,” they proudly declare while wearing a pair of shorts with a jacket. And they’re right, we do get a little dramatic when the temperature falls. As soon as it dips below 60, people here start unironically dressing like Santa Claus. Winter fashion in LA is as utilitarian as a shovel made out of diamonds. At this very moment, there’s not a functional beanie being worn in the entire city. Still, it’s the only time of year we can embrace comfort foods typically enjoyed in much more frigid temperatures. 63 and sunny? That’s chili weather here in SoCal, baby. Lasagna, ramen, boat noodles, and pasta just hit better when the temperature drops. But a dish you likely don’t have in your rotation is bibim naengmyeon, a classic spicy cold noodle dish with origins in eastern North Korea.
Ham Hung, which has been around since 1985, specializes in naengmyeon. Owner Samuel Oh knows that people tend to flock to the restaurant in the summer for it. But not all naengmyeon is the same. The west coast style cold noodle, which originated in Pyongyang, is called mul naengmyeon. You might recognize the chilly beef broth and dongchimi brine with crushed ice swimming around in a steel bowl. It comes served with buckwheat noodles and a choice of meat, radishes, egg, cucumber, and korean pear. Mul naengmyeon made headlines a few years back when North and South Korean leaders Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un met in Pyongyang for the Inter-Korean summit. They dined on this noodle, and it gained wild popularity. But that’s mul naengmyeon, and that’s a tried and true Summer dish. Its savory cold broth cools down the body on a hot day.
Bibim naengmyeon, which you can find on Ham Hung’s menu listed as spicy cold noodles, is dressed with dadaeki, or red chili paste. Sam’s recipe for dadaeki is a secret, but it is tangy, moderately spicy, and delicious. Order the spicy cold noodles and you can choose, skate, beef, or pork. The move, however, is to order all three (saekimi naengmyeon). Rounding out the dish is sliced cucumbers, a hard boiled egg, and a side dish of thinly sliced daikon radish mixed with chili pepper, salt, and vinegar. Generously dump some hot mustard into your steel bowl for maximum flavor, but no matter how you dress the dish, the star of the show remains the potato starch noodles, which are synonymous with bibim naengmyeon.
Ham Hung’s noodles are a true delight; chewy and fresh in a way that the average diner likely hasn’t experienced. They are impossibly resilient and fresh. Sam’s noodle extruder was built in 1985, the same year the restaurant opened, and it sits above a near boiling vat of water. Once the noodles are fed through the extruder, they fall into the water, cooking in seconds. From there, they are dressed with the house dadaeki near a prep station. The whole process, from extruder to bowl to table, happens in a matter of minutes. The chewiness of the potato starch noodle, the tangy spice of the dadaeki, the hot mustard and tangy daikon radish – this dish is an iconic winter meal. But, maybe you’re skeptical. Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t want cold noodles on a cold day.” Hold on right there, partner, because the meal isn’t over.
Particularly enjoyable to this style of naengmyeon, and especially on this debatably cold night, is the thermos of meat stock that comes served with the spicy cold noodle. At Ham Hung, every order of bibim naengmyeon is served with an insulated pitcher of meat stock and your own coffee mug. This broth is a master stock of sorts, made from chicken, beef, and “whatever is around, really” according to Sam. That stock comes served piping hot a few minutes before the delightfully toothsome and flavorful bibim naengmyeon arrives. Drinking the hot, savory broth warms the bones and satisfies in such a way that you almost forget you have an entire bowl of noodles on the way. The two work in tandem with each other, as Sam explains, “sipping the hot broth helps digestion.” You might feel full (it is a lot of food) but take 15 steps outside of the restaurant and you’ll feel happily mobile, not weighed down and sleepy.
Sam loves to talk about the history of Korean food. Bibim naengmyeon, which originated in Ham Hung (a city in eastern North Korea and also the restaurants’ namesake), he insists is a winter dish. “This dish was traditionally made by farmers,” Sam tells me about bibim naengmyeon’s origins. “[Farmers] stay home in the winter. And at home, they have nothing better to do than to prepare themselves meals. So, you have what ingredients you have, and you try to make the best out of it.” There’s something especially resonating, given these last few years, about having a ton of time on your hands and engaging in arduous culinary endeavors. It makes sense that spicy cold noodles would be an east coast dish, where the temperatures are more frigid, and potatoes are resourceful as they are plentiful.
Though the restaurant usually fills up in the Summertime for mul naengmyeon, Ham Hung is a perfect cold weather restaurant. In addition to spicy cold noodles, the stews at Ham Hung are generously affordable and delicious. I am a particular fan of the gamja tang, a soup made from pork neck and potato. The flavor of the pork neck is gelatinous and meaty, and the potatoes are tender and filling. The dish comes served with perilla seeds (when available) to add some extra nutty, herbal flavor. The galbi tang (beef rib, glass noodles, and egg soup) is delightfully beefy, and yukgaejang (spicy beef and egg soup) doesn’t disappoint with its great flavor and wide array of vegetables. Sam also touts that every soup on his menu has its own stock, “A lot of restaurants use the same stock for every soup, we don’t do that. Pork neck soup has pork neck stock. Beef rib stew has beef rib stock. It intensifies the flavor.” The walk-in cooler at Ham Hung is indeed stacked high and wide with various buckets and plastic dated containers filled with soup stocks. Every stew has its own juice. As it should be.
Maybe on a particular February night, when it’s 7PM and the temperature inches close to the dreaded 49 mark, you’ll start to crave comfort food. When you do, consider popping into Ham Hung for a piping hot thermos of meat broth and a bowl of traditional Ham Hung style spicy cold noodles. Or perhaps some thoughtfully prepared stew. It’ll hit the spot.
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