My longtime local go-to for Korean soup has been Seoul Gomtang, on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, but recently another contender, Moo Bong Ri, has been edging up as a favorite spot. Found in the back of Temescal’s Koryo Plaza, the restaurant has been open for about three years. It’s part of a franchise chain that started in Korea, with outposts across the United States, including in the South Bay and Los Angeles. Specializing in Korean soups, casseroles and stews, Moo Bong Ri’s menu will excite diners who are looking for traditional dishes beyond Korean BBQ and bibimbap.
On my first visit to a restaurant, I always try its specialty. So, despite never really being a huge fan of Korean blood sausage, I tried the soondae guk (blood sausage soup) ($13.99). The dark purplish-black sausages are sliced thick and cooked in a milky gomtang (beef bone broth). I loved the broth, which is simple, but rich and flavorful — the kind of dish that feels curative just traveling down your gullet. The soup comes to the table unseasoned, for you to doctor with sea salt, fermented shrimp and other condiments to your taste. The sausages are filled with glutinous rice and dangmyeon (glass noodles), making them somewhat gelatinous in texture, especially when boiled in the soup; and although their dark, imposing color might make you think they’ll be strong and gamey, they are pretty mild, with a slight mineral flavor from the blood. Still, soondae guk is just not the dish for me, so while I’m glad to have tried it, it will probably be my last time ordering it.
Another speciality at Moo Bong Ri is the galbi tang, or beef short rib stew ($17.99). Over the past two years, I’ve noticed a spate of chef friends posting photos on Instagram of this soup. Moo Bong Ri’s version is unmistakable — two long, meaty beef short ribs come half-submerged in the clear broth, with the ends just jutting out over the bowl’s rim. The massive bones bring to mind the beginning credits of the Flintstones, when the family’s car gets tipped over by a huge order of brontosaurus ribs.
The soup itself is rich, yet delicate, with a subtle sweet-bitter flavor of mu (Korean daikon radish), a perfect complement to beef. Unlike the blood sausage soup, the galbi tang comes already salted and topped with chopped green onions. When you dip your spoon far enough in the bowl, you’ll find a tangle of chewy glass noodles in the clear soup.
Even more to my liking is Moo Bong Rib’s pork rib stew ($15.99), a version of haejang-guk, or Korean hangover soup, that’s traditionally flavored with doenjang (fermented bean paste). The spicy stew comes to the table bubbling in a stoneware pot. It’s topped with crushed perilla seeds and shredded perilla leaf. Perilla, a Korean herb, is kind of like shiso, but with a nuttier flavor. In the soup, it adds a nice herbal contrast to the peppery, fermented soybean-flavored broth, the mild cooked cabbage, and the fatty, tender, fall-off-the-bone pork neck pieces. Don’t be afraid to pick up the bones to gnaw the meat off them. With this soup, and the galbi tang, diners are given a receptacle just for tossing away cleaned-off bones.
There’s a lot more on the menu. Moo Bong Ri’s yukgaejang (spicy shredded beef soup) is offered with traditional glass noodles ($15.99), but there’s also a heartier version with kalguksu (knife-cut wheat noodles) ($17.99), which my dining partner ordered on a recent visit. At that same lunch, a large party of senior diners at a nearby table were sharing a feast of bossam (sliced boiled pork belly, served with napa cabbage leaves for wrapping), galbi jjim (spicy braised beef short ribs) and other dishes that looked tempting. There’s also tonkatsu (Japanese fried pork cutlets) and fried dumplings and potstickers, as well as golbaengi-muchim (seasoned sea snails) and gop-chang bokkeum (spicy fried intestines).
Accompanying the dishes at Moo Bong Ri are two to three different banchan, or side dishes, mainly kimchis. On various visits, I’ve been served napa cabbage kimchi, kkakdugi (cubed daikon kimchi) and a small plate of soy-marinated garlic and chile peppers. Other times, I’ve had slender green chile peppers seasoned in gochugaru (Korean chile flakes) or buchu kimchi made with chives. While the spartan selection of banchan might be disappointing if you’re expecting a huge spread, in the case of Moo Bong Ri, where the main dishes shine, it’s just enough.
Moo Bong Ri is open 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4-10 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday