It took me a few months after I moved to Los Angeles to realize that the shortest route to al bap was no longer 40 minutes on the freeway. It was 10 minutes in a car (followed by circling insane parking lots full of jostling valets, but I digress) to Koreatown.
Desiring to start my descent into al bap madness in a controlled fashion, I carefully chose two restaurants who boasted wildly divergent approaches to the dish. (You have no idea how happy it makes me that my potential al bap selection is now so enormous that I can type the previous sentence.)
The first, Chunju Han-Il Kwan, was a bustling stew-ladling madhouse at lunch, the whole place smelling like Seoul distilled and echoing with enthusiastic Korean vowels. Four waitresses served the whole restaurant; there were no assigned 'areas' or 'sections'. They came by the tables in shifts while the others filled banchan dishes, refilled and shook the barley-water machine, and visited the kitchen. Each took care to warn us, in studied tones, to be careful of our hot stone bowls!
The second, A-Won Japanese restaurant, though Japanese in title, murmured quietly with the sounds of Korean just the same. I was politely shown to the sushi bar with all the other single diners. Everyone else except me was a Korean businessman silently and methodically scooping up chopstickfuls of rice, fish, and fish eggs. The sushi bar was staffed by a tall, thin chef who made al bap and hwe dup bap in rows like a single-man assembly line. He took a break to gaze at me with an unreadable expression as I started mixing the beautiful rainbow of fish eggs, seaweed, uni, and tamago he'd just carefully arranged. I couldn't read his gaze. Perhaps I should have taken more than five seconds to admire the swirl of color and its deliberate asymmetry.
Chunju Han-Il Kwan's version came with the normal dizzying array of banchan - some standouts like spicy zucchini and marinated fishcakes were terrific and gone in no time - but the main attraction itself was surprisingly low key on flavor. Of course, it came out angrily splattering hot oil everwhere, and when I nudged it with chopsticks it sizzled menacingly. Leaning my whole upper body away, I stirred the rice, dodging the explosive snaps, knowing that my reward would be a perfectly crunchy, yet not unrecognizably blackened, rice layer.
And so it was, and it was the best part of the dish, once I got to it. Until then, the little piles of tiny roe dissolved so thoroughly into the rice that they left little in their wake but a slight oceany tinge on the tongue. I ate it enthusiastically nonetheless - the upbeat atmosphere was contagious and the promise of the crispy rice on the bottom propelled me through.
If this al bap was understated, I expected the al bap at A-Won to be overstated. I'd cheated and looked at pictures of it online, and it was an absurd carnival of colors. Fully four different shades of roe provided a pointillist background to a big old yellow slash of uni, two different types of seaweed salad (the light green wakame and the earthy green hijiki), and the giant orange marbles of ikura (salmon roe). Even the rice was speckled under the roe with tiny chopped pieces of tamago. A few strands of surimi poked their stupid meddling heads up around the bowl. I scowled at them, but mixed them in with everything else. My chef was watching.
A-Won's al bap, though, was a whole lot of showmanship masking a similarly muted flavor. The presence of yellow pickled daikon helped, but the only major difference here was the ikura, which burst showily between my teeth, and the lucky few times I was able to get some uni goo in a bite with all the rest of it.
What have I learned? I've learned that al bap may only be transcendent when taken as a welcome break from a constant overdose of gochujang, but it's always going to be a comfort food, and whether it's due to bursting ikura or crackling rice, my teeth are going to enjoy the ride.