The Sullungtang Tango
The soup at Jang Mo Gip comes two ways: spicy and really spicy
When the nights get nippy, thoughts inevitably turn to soup. Anise-scented bowls of pho. Gurgling cauldrons of Korean soft tofu stew called sundubu jjigae. Or the long-simmered, porky soulfulness of tonkotsu ramen. But have you heard of sullungtang? It shares the properties of all three.
Like pho, it’s beef-based. Like sundubu jjigae, it’s Korean and served in a heavy, black pot. And like tonkotsu ramen, it’s as murky as milk. But these similarities are superficial, for sullungtang has an identity and purpose all its own, ladled out and served where most soups begin—before it’s seasoned.
Take a sip, and your initial impression is that someone forgot to put in the flavor. But that’s a task left up to you. At Jang Mo Gip—one of the few places in OC that cooks sullungtang—a vessel of sea salt awaits at each table, with a plastic spoon driven into the mound like a shovel in fresh snow.
At first, you’ll add just a pinch, then another and another, until you notice the soup—which tasted like dirty dishwater before—beginning to blossom. Its beefiness, previously imperceptible, now emerges from hiding, buttery and rich. Thanks to the salt and the 12 hours that the liquid spent simmering around ox bones (extracting its essence and lip-smacking collagen), it’s ready to pay out dividends.
The base model of sullungtang will contain wispy shavings of brisket and some jiggly vermicelli noodles. But those with guts can choose to have actual guts as protein: Spleen and various cattle innards are offered as options.
Not optional: napa cabbage kimchi, which, like the cubed radish, is cloaked in a coat of chili. Both are made fresh. Though the radish will snap with a pickled sourness, the cabbage does it without the usual ripe, acidic tang of the jarred stuff. It’s snipped with scissors tableside into bite-sized flaps, ready to make your lips throb under a burn as relentless as any good kimchi.
Also provided with the meal is a massive bucket of chopped green onions, meant as another add-on to the soup. It isn’t as essential as the salt, but it’s not to be ignored. You can spoon in a little—or a lot, like I do—to add color, crunch and an onion-y smack to your sinuses.
Once the soup is prepped and fully realized, you can alternate between taking a slurp of broth and a spoonful of rice from a bowl. But it isn’t entirely improper to dump the rice into the soup. That’s exactly what bleary-eyed revelers do after a night of boozing and debauchery; if anything, sullungtang is infamous as the ultimate hangover cure-all and breakfast. Conveniently, Jang Mo Gip opens at 7 a.m. to embrace the party-weary as well as any itinerant soul eager for a hot, steaming bowl of comfort.
Jang Mo Gip is exactly the kind of dive that would dole out such things. The restaurant is actually just a small kitchen, with tables and a cramped side room that looks like it used to be a storage closet. Behind the counter, obstructed from view by a wall of bowls stacked like bricks, two middle-aged women tend to a boiling vat of broth. These ladies will also be your servers. Neither speaks more than a few words of English, and one will get annoyed that you can’t speak Korean. Hand gesturing and nodding become the de rigeur form of communication, but since there are only eight items on the small placard that is their menu, it’s enough to get by.
It’s easy to order the sullungtang, anyway; it will be the first one listed as BF Bone Soup. Other items are permutations of it, but something they call Spicy Soup is a completely different dish, a preseasoned bowl of stinging red broth crowded to the brim with stewed beef, shitake mushrooms and chunks of radish so soft they disintegrate under their own weight. This one’s a complete meal that’s ready-to-eat when served—no salting needed. And forget about asking them to tone down the hotness for your hangover headache. They do it only two ways: spicy and really spicy.
The only respite comes as dessert, for which a bowl of sweetened water with rice is chilled with chips of ice. It’s served on the house and is as essential to the Jang Mo Gip experience as the events that led you there.
Jang Mo Gip, 9711 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 534-1340. Open daily, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $15, food only.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.