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Feb 26, 2010 09:03 AM

Yelp was more accurate than Jonathan Gold (or, pigs fly at Mandarin House in Koreatown)

Saw the "99 things to eat in LA before you die" article in LA Weekly.

This grabbed my attention:
"...cha chiang mein, hand-pulled noodles in a dense, black sauce of fermented beans and pork, is out of this world. Mandarin House, 3074 W. Eighth St., Koreatown. (213) 386-8976."

We've never tried Korean Chinese food, and hand pulled noodles close to our home clinched the deal.

We ordered $7.80 wor wonton (50 cents more than standard wonton soup-- we asked "what's the difference?" Answer: wor wonton has seafood in it), mixed veggies (about $8) and cha chiang mian with meat (also about $8)

The only panchan served was a small plate of kimchi. Oddly sweet, but really delicious. When the server saw that we finished the plate, she brought out a much bigger plate the second time. I think we passed the test.

The soup was fine. Huge bowl, clear and clean, and a little sweet (likely from the artificial crabmeat. Nothing extraordinary. Likewise with the mixed veggies-- standard cornstarch thickened pan fried veggies.... broccoli, water chestnuts, peapods, etc.

And now, the cha chiang mian. I went to Yelp only because I was unable to find any substantive information from Chowhound on Mandarin House in Koreatown. Several yelpers commented that the cha chiang mian used to be fantastic, but lately it has suffered from a lack of flavor. Well, clearly Jgold had visited recently... he wouldn't have printed specious information without current first hand data, right?

We were served two bowls.... a smallish bowl of very nice looking hand pulled noodles (unsauced) and a GIGANTIC bowl of the black and bubbly, bumpy and lumpy cha chiang sauce. Like, an absurd amount of sauce for that quantity of noodles. After finishing all the noodles, the bowl of sauce was still filled nearly to the brim.

Also, the sauce *looked* like it should reek unctious flavor. It was deeply black, with little lumps of onions and whatever else (ostensibly, meat). We ladled a generous amount onto each of our bowls and took a bite. I don't know how they did it, but it tasted like thickened water, flavored with black beans and onions. Meat wasn't detectable at all. The noodles themselves were nice... a little too soft, but chewy enough, and fresh. But my Lovely Tasting Assistant (LTA) and I came away baffled... how in the world can you remove virtually all of the flavor from a bowl of viscous, black sauce?? I've never experienced anything quite so odd.

Any other experiences at Mandarin House that other hounds with like to share?

Mr Taster

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  1. Ja jang myun sauce should be thicker than water and taste salty with hint of sweetness. It really shouldn't reek at all. When I was a kid, it reminded me a bit of plum sauce. I haven't tried Mandarin House, but I recall Dragon Restaurant doing a decent version. You might also try tan-soo-yuk (sweet and sour beef and pork) and gampong chicken (spicy and sweet chicken wings). Generally speaking, anything fried or with noodles will be decent at a Korean-Chinese place.

    14 Replies
    1. re: a_and_w

      My LTA and I are quite familiar with the Chinese versions of this dish, but we are completely unfamiliar with the Korean incarnation. Please note that I did not invoke water as a textural comparison. This sauce was thick and black, but somehow it tasted half (or quarter) strength of what it should have. I'm not sure how one does that (unless the sauce is colored and loaded down with cornstarch or gelatin as a thickener).

      Since we had such a massive bowl of the sauce left over, I'm going to tinker with it over the weekend and see if I can boost the flavor.

      Mr Taster

      1. re: Mr Taster

        From what I understand, the basic sauce is made by stir frying the concentrated black bean paste with pork, onions, and then water is added to boil, and then yes, corn starch to thicken.

        I think the 'kan' jjajang version either skips or goes lite on the water and cornstarch added. Some prefer that version--it's usually one notch more expensive. The flavor is more concentrated and the dish is perhaps less greasy, or at least a different type of greasy.

        The 'samseon' version or seafood also has a different nuanced flavor and is also less greasy in its own way.

        I have not worked in the area since 2004 and we don't go to k-town often enough to really compare but i could ask around as to what is best right now. The mandarin deli on 8th street was indeed considered the best by many for a while, but as many have noted, it's gone down hill or is at least inconsistent.

        As namster notes below, the one inside k-town plaza on east side of Western a couple blocks north of Olympic is favored by many. The one in the Galleria food court is convenient.

        Being light of wallet, lately I have been frequenting China Gate (Chinese Gate? JoongHwaGak in Korean) on the NE corner of Olympic and Crenshaw. The jjajang is $4, the jjambong is $5, the 1/2 1/2 combo is $6 and the quality is decent. They also serve frozen yogurt and boba (2 for 1!) right there so it's convenient.

        1. re: parked

          Are the noodles hand pulled at the places you mention? That's really the key to get me to go there.

          Mr Taster

          1. re: Mr Taster

            i'm pretty sure China Gate has hand-pulled noodles--they had that reassuring inconsistent thickness and nice bite.

            i vaguely remember the place in k-town plaza also having hand-pulled but i could be wrong. this is probably the place i would recommend if i absolutely had to make a rec.

            there always seems to be a wait so they must be doing something right.

            1. re: parked

              It's Chinese Gate (not China Gate).

              Not hand-made noodles (either pulled or rolled). Awful place. Avoid.

              1. re: ipsedixit


                I am consistently impressed by the range of restaurants you have tried.

                Where (if anywhere) do you like eating jjajangmyeon in K-town?

                1. re: parked

                  Ding's and One Plus One Dumplings are good options.

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    I was actually asking if you had any recs in K-town, but this is good to know as well.

                    The never-ending list of Chinese places I have to try keeps on growing ...

                    1. re: parked

                      Sorry. I should have noted that I'm not all that familiar with the Korean version of Jia Jiang Mien. I think I just prefer the flavor/taste of the Chinese version.

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        I don't even really consider the Chinese and Korean versions to be the same dish.

                        They might have started out from the same origin but they're pretty different now, much like the difference between various regional pizzas.

                        I should also mention that timing is really key in eating Korean JJM. The difference between fresh made noodles/sauce and stuff that has been sitting around for while is ginormous, perhaps more so than other noodle dishes. The same dish at the same restaurant can be excellent at one point, and barely edible 30 mins later, especially if it's from the same batch.

                        No matter how you try it, JJM does not reheat well IMHO, and I've been experimenting for like 2 decades.

                      1. re: JThur01

                        Ding's Garden in San Gabriel (on Valley).

          2. re: Mr Taster

            FYI, if you find ja jang myun too bland, you might want to try jampong, a spicy seafood soup with noodles.

            1. re: Mr Taster


              I thawed some frozen pork and browned it in a frying pan with a few spoonfuls of Kikkoman black bean sauce. I then incorporated it into the leftover Mandarin House cha chiang mian sauce.

              It was fantastic!!!

              Seriously, lovely, salty, sweet, and the right texture with the bits of minced pork.

              Mr Taster

          3. Hey MT!
            I agree with you 100% I really used to love this place before it moved into the mall. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE good Ja Jiang Mein, Korean or Chinese, but it is so hard to find. I hear Young King is good but I haven't been.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Ciao Bob

              Hi Ciao Bob,

              Please report back if you end up finding any very good Ja Jiang Mien in the area; I've been craving a good bowl, but all my go-to places closed down.

              1. re: Ciao Bob

                Haven't tried the ja jang myun at Young King, but some hounds recently turned me onto the tan soo yuk there, which is quite tasty.

              2. not an experience with mandarin house, but with another of the Gold recommendations that seems dated.
                Gold recommends the catfish served at Chinois on Main, which btw is one of my favorite restaurant dishes, but he describes it as being a huge portion.
                well, years ago it may have been a huge portion, but not for a long, long, time.
                just to be clear, i still think the quality of this dish is terrific.

                1. I don't know if I have a huge bias because I'm Chinese (there is definitely some bias), but I've never taken to the Korean version of ja jiang mien, for many of the reasons you describe. Where do I find a Korean version that you enjoy?

                  If it helps, I like the one they do at Dean Sin World.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: andytseng

                    I agree. I have yet to find a Korean version that's as tasty as the Chinese one.

                    1. re: taiwanesesmalleats

                      Yes, not to pile on against the Koreans, but I prefer the Chinese version. Always seemed to me that the sauce was more pungent and savory.

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        It seems such a shame to go through the effort of making hand pulled noodles and then thwarting the effort by dousing them in a diluted sauce.

                        Let's refocus the question.... whose Koreatown hand pulled noodle dishes are really worth eating? (Where to go and what dishes do you recommend there?)

                        Mr Taster

                    2. re: andytseng

                      One of the ironies of Korean-Chinese food is that it tends to be sweeter, less spicy, and less funky than authentic Chinese. It's so odd because Korean food generally tends to be spicier and more funky than the alternatives.

                    3. i like it at the chinese place in ktown plaza next to nicole's cafe. they also have a branch in the galleria food court but i like the ktown one better. there are several different types of jja jjang myun (i.e. gahn, samsung, yuni, etc.) to be honest, i haven't seen very many chinese or any non-koreans, rather, eat jja jjang myun. the korean-influ chinese places tend to be frequented by koreans. also, most places don't serve the noodles completely separately.. they usually have it in the same bowl altho they leave it up to you to mix the 2 together evenly. mandarin has gone downhill but perhaps to add to it, the OP did not use enough sauce?? if it were my first time eating jja jjang myun i can imagine i wouldn't know to use enough sauce as what looks to be enough is not enough (jja jjang myun needs to be completely covered through and through and still have extra sauce for it to taste right).

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: namstermonster

                        We started by lightly saucing the noodles. When we realized that we were tasting 90% wheat, we loaded in the sauce until it was virtually swimming in it. The 90% figure came down to perhaps 70%. I mean, it's not a criminal offense or anything, but it was just so shocking that the stuff tasted so lightly of anything substantial, despite the quantity we were using.

                        Mr Taster