The two middle-aged women who work the dining room at Mhat Korean Restaurant in La Palma can always change my mood for the better. Whether I'm having a bad day, feeling hungry or just plain tired, I know I'm going to be doted upon, fed well and made whole again. Their presence says, "There, there, it'll be all right. You're here now, and after dinner, you can get yourself a free ice cream cone."
I almost want to say it doesn't matter what these ladies actually serve, but that wouldn't be true—the food here is an extension of their personalities. Mhat offers Korean home-style dishes—comforting soups and stews and things that warm you from the inside out. The signature dish is dahk galbi, a stew that morphs into at least three other dishes as you're eating it.
Big morsels of dark-meat chicken swim in a gochujang-tinted soup with sliced potatoes, cabbage, chewy rice cakes, hard-boiled eggs and perilla leaves. But as the soup reduces and thickens, it turns into a spicy concentrate of garlic and Korean chili that coats the chicken and everything else around it. After it's finished, rice is added to the dregs and stir-fried to make a risotto-like dish to conclude the meal.
The evening I ordered the dahk galbi, one of the ladies set up a small camp stove on our table—a signal of its imminent arrival. The other woman brought the dish out from the kitchen in a pot as wide as a hubcap, both hands gripping the handles. The table seemed to groan under its weight as she set the pot down. Then, as she dialed the stove to high, I attempted to go in for a taste. She waved me off.
"Not yet," she said with a wink. "Almost ready."
Within the next few minutes, the brick-red brew started to bubble under its mountain of greens. And just as the leaves began to wilt and sink, she returned to mix it all together. "Now it's ready!" she said, smiling as she pushed the gurgling pot closer.
We ate it slowly, taking care to blow on each steaming morsel. And the more we ate, the more we realized how addictive it was. This is one of those dishes that no matter how much your lip throbs from the spice or how full you are, you can't stop. I don't know how many times I said to myself "Just one more bowl," only to dish up more.
Even factoring our gusto, the two of us couldn't put a dent on the massive portion served. One order is supposed to feed two people, but it could've easily fed four. For a nominal fee, the dish is customizable: Udon noodles, dumplings, more vegetables, or even cheese can be added to the pot.
On another night, we realized these addictive properties also exist in Mhat's second-most-popular dish: the bulgogi and octopus casserole, which isn't a casserole at all, but another soup meant to serve two. To start the dish, one of the ladies snipped an octopus into tiny pieces with scissors in front of us. And just as she did before, she told us to wait a few minutes while it finished cooking at a low simmer. When it did, she came to ladle the savory broth—which was chock-full of thinly sliced bulgogi beef and king oyster mushrooms—into our bowls like a mom.
Whatever we ordered here, whether it's something as elaborate as the dahk galbi or as simple as the galbi tang (massive beef ribs simmered in clear broth with floating ribbons of egg in it), the ladies serve at least seven free panchan side dishes to eat along with it. These dishes have a wide spectrum of flavors—briny, pungent, acidic, sweet. The selection changes nightly, but there's always a panchan dish in which the women take special pride. One Friday evening, it was a braised salmon that could've been dinner unto itself. Another night, it was simmered potato so sweet and endearing we asked for multiple refills.
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But really, everything here is good. And after every meal I've had, I always find myself scooping out a triple-decker ice cream cone for dessert at the communal freezer. It could be said that the free ice cream is just another part of Mhat's over-the-top hospitality. But for me, it's the final phase of my mood-altering therapy session. Better than a scratchy couch, you know?
Mhat Korean Restaurant, 8412 Moody St., La Palma, (714) 252-5033. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$45, food only. Beer and soju.