Sunday, March 1, 2009
I know the video is small, but it’s the best I had since a still photo really wouldn’t do this story justice. Do read on to understand.
The building was certainly unassuming enough. Just another windowless, hole-in-the-wall nestled in a corner under a white sign with blue lettering in the heart of Los Angeles’s Koreatown beckoning for those in the know to stop by for a meal.
If one was truly in the know, one might be aware that this was one of the oldest Korean restaurants in Los Angeles. And then one might give it a second glance. If one was observant, one might notice the name ‘Masan Restaurant’ spelled out in English underneath the same name written in a much larger Korean font. If one was a little intuitive, one might reason that unlike the neighboring restaurants whose signs bore no English at all, that this restaurant may well have become sought out by those other than the immediate Korean speaking community. And again one might give it a second glance. Most others would simply pass by, on their way to stuff their faces with all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ, not knowing the jewel they were overlooking.
Nothing against all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ, but that is another blog for another day.
Inside Masan patrons are given menus and sat at tables with doorbells on the wall. The table doorbell is quite possibly the best restaurant invention since the fork. Ready for your order to be taken? Ring the doorbell. Need another beer? Ring the doorbell. Ready for the check? Ding-dong. But at Masan, once you ring that doorbell, you better be ready to point to your order as English is spoken at a minimum here. If you are lucky, you speak Korean and have nothing to worry about. If you’re even luckier, you’ve gone with someone else who speaks it and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy.
Upon figuring out that continually pressing the doorbell is not nearly as much fun for your server as it is for you, one is left with only two real options. Option 1; go look at the fish tanks in the front of the restaurant. Or Option 2; look at the menu. Seeing as how the menu is in front of you and the fish tanks are a full 8 paces away, a glance at the menu is usually the logical progression.
Next up in this progression is to look around the room, back down at the menu, around the room again and then back to the menu. You see, all dishes at Masan are priced above $20. While this is Los Angeles and overpriced menus are nothing out of the norm, one cannot help but feel a little confusion when coupling these kinds of prices with Masan’s ambiance that is created by fluorescent lighting and Korean beer posters.
But Masan is full of the unexpected.
It was mentioned a couple of paragraphs up that Masan is best navigated with a Korean speaker. I was lucky enough to have such a speaker in my group. But as was mentioned even earlier, English is on the sign in front for a reason. Without it, non-Korean speakers would not flock here. But it is and they do. And while the servers may not know much English, they do understand at least 3 words. And those words are, “Live octopus, please.”
I knew what I was getting myself into, for I had been searching out a place to try this dish for over a year. However, the extent to which I was getting into it caught me completely off guard.
I was not expecting an entire octopus as depicted in the movie “Old Boy”. I was expecting a couple of tentacles served still moving and possibly on a bed of rice.
Nope and nope.
Imagine an average size plate completely covered with gray and white tentacles chopped up and squirming around (think chopped up slugs). That’s what we got.
The best way to relate to what was going on before me was to think of earthworms. I’m sure most all of us as children either ripped apart a worm, or watched an older brother do so, just to watch the multiple parts wiggle around as if living separate lives. The main difference was that those earthworms never made it to the dinner table. These tentacles were also much thicker than the quintessential fishing bait…and they had suction cups. The main similarity was that these guys, like the mutilated earth worms, did not want to be around curious humans and were going to fight ‘til the bitter end.
Moving like inch worms, a few tentacles wasted no time making a break for it by inching their way off the plate. In a moment of complete and utter sadism, I found it quite entertaining to let them get to the cusp of freedom at the edge of the table before seizing them between my chopsticks and returning them to the pile where they would await their dismal fate.
While the rogue tentacles were easy to pick up, due to them having exhausted most of their energy on their plight for freedom, the others knew what was in store and reserved their energy for the final battle. If chopsticks weren’t tricky enough to use, try using them on something that really doesn’t want them used on it in the first place. The tentacles would contract making themselves appear very small. Perhaps the tentacles had the anti-survivor of the fittest mentality; they thought that the big guys would go first. And they were right. However, some of the smallest tentacles, once trapped between two skinny pieces of wood, elongated and thrashed wildly to avoid what was now the inevitable…or at least what this opposing thumbed mammal thought would be the inevitable. You see the fight does not culminate once the tentacle has been grasped between chopsticks, rather it continues until gastric juices finally win out deep inside the stomach (and even then I think there is probably still a “Toxic Avenger” like tentacle in my stomach waiting for the just right moment to rise again). Once in the mouth, tentacles hold onto anything and everything they can to prevent becoming part of the food chain. Immediately, the first tentacle I placed in my mouth sucked onto the inside of my cheek and refused to let go. Not knowing how to react, I fought back, trying all the while not to think of the leaches scene in “Stand By Me.”
Alas, the invertebrate was no match for years of training put in by my molars which had honed their destructive skills on much tougher competition like beef jerky…and public school lunches.
Eating food that doesn’t go down without a fight is one way to thoroughly appreciate a meal. It creates a sense of primal accomplishment by making a person feel as if the playing field was a little more even during this dining experience (I'm pretty sure no one is holding out for free-range octopus after eating a plate of the stuff). One’s pride may even swell a little knowing that yet again the two legger was victorious. Try getting that feeling with an apple Danish.
For those who consider the true sign of a more advanced creature to be an intelligent brain opposed to brute mouth strength, Masan supplies sesame oil. When doused with oil those suction cups don’t stand a chance.
In the end, the three of us cleaned the plate. The octopus and 2 large beers came out to a total of $38 which wasn’t too bad. But considering we followed that up with 6 tacos, 2 tostadas, al pastor nachos and pitcher of beer from a taco stand down the street, for only $25, live octopus isn’t the most economical choice to fill your belly. While it is a worthwhile cultural experience to have, I compare it to being on the plane that crashed in the Hudson; it’s a lot of fun to say you did it, but you don’t really care to do it again.
Oh, but how did they taste you may ask? Imagine having the flu and hocking up a cold, aggressive loogie that you just can’t seem to spit out of your mouth. That about sums it up.
Try it for yourself at Masan Restaurant located at 2851 W. Olympic Ave.