Although japchae sounds like a term that should be avoided in polite conversation, it is in fact a Korean dish of glass noodles made from sweet potatoes, roasted vegetables and, oftentimes, rice or meat cooked in sesame oil.
The Pasadena area has a number of establishments that include japchae, and each one does it in a unique way—the variations are subtle, but important to the overall taste of the dish. I visited three restaurants to taste their take on japchae: Gen Korean Barbecue House in Alhambra, Cham Korean Bistro on South Lake, and the Cordova Cafe, on the bottom floor of a large office building in Pasadena.
Gen was first, an all you can eat, two-story modernist Korean barbecue on Main Street in Alhambra. The japchae was the last dish on a long list of meats to be cooked on the table. Gen’s version was simple, with long, flavorful noodles and juicy roasted peppers. Flavored with soy sauce in addition to the sesame oil, the noodles were somewhat sweet and salty, but overall the japchae was straightforward and lacked any sort of culinary bells and whistles.
I visited Cham Korean Bistro for their japchae (photo, top right) and encountered a similar, albeit more complex plate of the glass noodles. It was generally wetter with more of both oil and soy sauce, but included more variety of vegetables. It was offered as either a main dish or a sort of accompaniment to the various other offerings at the bistro. In addition to the noodles, Cham served the dish with rice as japchae-bap, bap meaning rice in Korean. The rice added a new texture, and soaked up the flavor, adding body to the normally slippery dish.
My third round of japchae came from a recommendation by a friend. Cafe Cordova, located on the bottom floor of a building on Los Robles and Cordova, caters to the business men and women who work in the building. Their menu is simple and sparse, the usual hamburgers and turkey on whites and cookies, yet it is clear upon observation that nobody in the little cafe is eating something from that menu. Instead, there are styrofoam boxes filled with aromatic and steaming Korean dishes provided by the delightful lady at the register. The first time I went, I ordered japchae and was told I was too late. They close at 4, but the Korean food tends to run out before 1. I tried again, two weeks later. The japchae was thinner this time, and tangled in itself, but was packed with flavor. It was decorated with beef and sesame seeds, which stirred into the noodles to provide contrast to each bite. The vegetables were varied and absorbed both the soy sauce and the sesame oil to augment their flavor. Along with all of this, the japchae filled the styrofoam box, making it the biggest portion for a cheaper price.
Pasadena’s Korean establishments are varied in presentation, ingredients and in philosophy, but one thing is certain: If you order japchae, you won’t be disappointed.
Gen Korean BBQ House, 68 W. Main St., Alhambra 91801. Tel.: 626.407.2858. Hours vary but generally open at 11:30 a.m., closing anywhere from 10:30-11:30 p.m. (check website for details). GenKoreanBBQ.com.
Cham Korean Bistro, 851 Cordova St., Pasadena 91101. Tel.: 626.792.2474. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Price: $11-30. ChamKoreanBistro.com.
Cafe Cordova, 376 Cordova St., Pasadena 91101. Tel.: 626.796.5711. Hours: 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Price: under $10