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Mystery meat dish in Koreatown a tasty surprise

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When I was in Korea a few weeks ago, I fell in love with something called tteok galbi, hand-chopped beef short ribs mixed with vegetables, aromatics, sometimes even pork, then grilled over a hot charcoal fire. Tteok is the Korean word for rice cake, but the patties are so called because they look a little like rice cakes, not because they include rice among their ingredients. They are more or less the local equivalent of hamburgers, served bare on a plate accompanied by neither rice nor bun.

The best tteok galbi tends to be served with the bones inserted back into the patties as a sign of authenticity, and maybe to add a little flavor. In Gwangju, there is an entire street devoted to tteok galbi specialists. In Damyang, the home of the dish, a platter of the juicy, crunchy patties joins bamboo "sashimi" as the heart of the region’s famous country meals.

I did not find it beyond imagining that among the several hundred Korean restaurants in Los Angeles, there might be one or two serving some version of the dish.

And when I got home, a quick Google search did turn up a restaurant with tteok galbi on the menu – Chil Bo Myun Ok, a barbecue house on Sixth Street best-known for its delicious naeng myun, cold noodles available either with sweetened beef broth or with chile sauce and raw skate. Chil Bo Myun Ok may well have the best mul naeng myun in town. The tteok galbi was likely to be good, too.

So I went to the restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, settled in and ordered a big, chilly bowl of mul naeng myun and an order of what indeed seemed to be listed as tteok galbi, although it appeared in a section of the menu I didn’t quite recognize.

The panchan, the usual little dishes of kimchi, bean sprouts and such, were fine. The noodles were as good as I had remembered them, transparent and stretchy, minimally garnished with a gray slice of beef, a few sliced pickles, and a hard-boiled egg.

But the tteok galbi couldn’t have been further from what I was expecting – it was a big platter of rice cakes tossed with onions and carrots, a crimson chile sauce, and a double handful of grilled beef, all blanketed with an oozing layer of melted cheese. This was less the meat dish I’d been craving and more a kind of souped-up version of the Korean street-food standard tteokbokki, rice cake sauteed with hot chile paste, a concoction you can get on almost every block in Seoul. This tteok galbi was the carne asada fries of the Korean noodle world. In spite of myself, I kind of liked it a lot.

The website of Chil Bo Myun Ok shows a picture of something resembling the tteok galbi I’d had in mind -- a broad, well-browned pancake of meat showing the imprint of a wire grid. There is no mention of the delicious hybrid. 

3680 W 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 387-9292.

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