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The Temple of Noodles
Follow the crowds of Korean churchgoers to Myung Dong Kal Guk Su for heavenly helpings of hand-cut glory
To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, when it comes to restaurants, variety is the last refuge of the incompetent. Think of the last time you saw a voluminous menu listing a hundred items, but with barely anything edible on it. Thank goodness for specialists: those with a laser-guided focus on doing one thing and doing that thing better than anyone else.
Myung Dong Kal Guk Su in Anaheim is such a place. Its experts specialize in kalguksu, hand-cut noodles. The dish isn’t just in the restaurant’s name, it’s the first thing listed on a menu that has fewer than a dozen items, a majority of them noodles. Order a bowl of the namesake specialty to start. A loose tangle of it swims in a big bowl of simple broth with a handful of cooked, ground pork sprinkled on top, a few meat-filled dumplings, shredded carrots and zucchini.
1000 N. Euclid St.
Anaheim, CA 92801
The noodles—as pale as Japanese udon and as wide as Italian linguine—have a smooth texture and ghostly translucence. In the eating, they are softly pliant, with mouth-filling warmth. Grab them by the chopstick-ful; each slurp will be silkier than the last, as the starch shed by the noodles thickens the broth as you eat. As you bring the bowl to your lips, your face will be eclipsed by its wide diameter and dampened by the steam until you’ve sipped the very last drop. In the end, your cheeks will be rosy from the dish’s homey warmth.
Too warm for hot noodle soup, you say? Myung Dong’s other noodle dishes adapt to every season and climate. Southern California’s Indian summers are a perfect complement to Korean cold noodles. And when I say cold, I mean ice-cold. The hanchi mul hye guksu will drop your core temperature a few degrees and make you shiver. Chips of ice float atop a spicy/tart/sweet tomato gazpacho-like soup, which you sip even though it has more in common with a Slurpee. Beneath the near-frozen broth hide spinach-green noodles, which are chilled and bracing like everything else in the dish, including strips of rubbery raw squid, tomato, crunchy julienned vegetables, and half a hard-boiled egg.
You can cool down in other ways, too. Kongguksu is composed of the same noodles as the previous dish under cold soybean milk, while another permutation called dongchimi guksu lies in a frigid vegetable-based brine. And just like the noodles, the service staff adapt to shifts of the mercury. Without your having to ask, they’ll heat up your barley tea if it’s cold outside. When it’s muggy, they’ll ice it down.
For temperate weather, chewy noodles called jajangmyeonare served at room temperature. But even as your lips burn from the heavy coating of Korean gochujang chile paste, it’s the noodles’ playful texture that thrills. Their resiliency is like that of a bungee cord made out of Flubber. Each strand volleys your bite and dares you to chew even more. Your cheek muscles, atrophied from years of Chef Boyardee, have never had more fun.
The few non-noodle dishes Myung Dong does, it does well. Mandu—steamed pork dumplings in thin-skinned wrappers—are golf-ball-sized, two-bite mouthfuls of ground pork and chives almost as juicy as its Chinese cousin, xiao long bao. Garlic cloves, dates and a whole hen stuffed with sweet rice gurgle in a meltingly hot cauldron for ginseng chicken soup. Customize your seasoning with a saucer of salt served on the side—which you’ll need, since the broth starts out unseasoned.
Of course, there’s kimchi, refilled obsessively so that your table’s supply never runs low of what is possibly the most garlicky in our hemisphere. Wince-inducing, sinus-clearing, pore-opening, the naked garlic rawness of it is initially painful to bear; but the more you eat, the more your tolerance builds, and the more you love it. Your breath, however, will be foul for days. Supplied are mints, which only marginally mask the odor. But if the Korean church crowd who comes in wearing their Sunday best doesn’t mind, neither should you. They’ll chomp away at sleek granite tables in a dining room that can fit a congregation of 80 people or so. It’s as grand as a place of worship—a veritable temple of noodles.
Myung Dong Kal Guk Su, 1000 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 533-7789. Call for hours. Dishes, $7.95-$12.95. Korean beer available.