Koreatown’s enduring love for gopchang

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Koreatown, in all its glory, can fatigue even the most dedicated Korean barbecue aficionados with its endless selection of grilled beef brisket and crispy pork belly.

But for those searching for more, an adventurous selection isn’t hard to find.

Tucked away in a popular 6th street plaza is Byul Gopchang . “Chang” is the Korean word for intestine, and for decades, the native specialty has been enjoyed exclusively among Korean Angelenos. That’s drastically changed in recent years, although dining on intestine is still an intimidating proposition for some. (Okay, for many).

“I actually do have a couple of customers, more than a couple of customers, who want to try [it] but they’re afraid to order, thinking that they might not like it,” says owner Alexandrea Yoo.

Not to worry — there’s plenty of familiar favorites to choose from, including the standard chadolbaegi (thin-sliced fatty brisket), samgyupsal (pork belly) and comforting pot of steamed egg. Each grill even comes with a side of tater tots and diced corn on the cob to appease more “American” palates.

You’re not here to settle for the usual, though.

Byul Gopchang on West 6th Street and South Serrano in Koreatown, Los Angeles. (Photo by Ashily Kim) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

A night of gopchang is often synonymous for a dual combo: gopchang, which is the small intestine, and dehchang, which is the large. And it’s almost always served with another cut, called makchang.

Although a direct translation suggests otherwise, makchang  technically isn’t intestine; it’s the bit of stomach that’s connected to it. Taste wise, it’s similar to a well-done bite of samgyupsal, only thicker and tougher in texture. On the English menu, you’ll see it as “abomasum.”

“We believe in the natural taste and also the cleanliness of it,” says Yoo. “You clean it well with flour, soju and seasalt.”

Typically, all three cuts of chang come from cows, despite Byul’s outdoor sign that reads yang, which can mean “sheep” in Korean. But yang-gopchang is just a folkier way of referring to the dish.

Now back to the grill. In its raw form, intestine is easily unappetizing, but once it starts to sear, it’s cut into small, popcorn-sized pieces. Crisp and browned on the outside, chewy and juicy on the inside, each bite goes down like a golden morsel of pleasure.

Left-to-right: gopchang (small intestine), dehchang (large intestine) and makchang (abomasum) at Byul Gopchang in Koreatown, Los Angeles. (Photo by Ashily Kim)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Whereas most KBBQ eaters are expected to cook their own meat, you’ll want to set down your tongs here. Grilling gopchang is tricky business, so the servers do about 90 percent of the work, sometimes pre-cooking it at a grill in the center of the restaurant before bringing it to your table. An occasional turn by customers is allowed, but they’ll cue you when it’s ready for eating.

They’re also famous for their side of kimchi-guk, or kimchi soup (not to be confused with its more ubiquitous cousin, the stew called kimchi-jjigae). The broth here is lighter and tangier than you might find elsewhere and has some special added ingredients.

“We cook our kimchi soup fresh every day, but also add in soft noodle pieces torn by hand,” says lead server Ju. “It’s been the same for 10 years. Whenever a longtime returning customer visits and takes their first bite, they’ll often say, ‘Oh, it tastes just like how I remember it!’ and that makes us feel really happy.”

Byul Gopchang (translation: Star Gopchang) opened 11 years ago after Yoo’s brother-in-law visited Korea. Gopchang-jeongol, or the spicy, vegetable, stewed-version of the dish, is more common there. But at the popular Busan beach town, Haeundae, he saw that grilled gopchang was a hit, and asked Yoo to help him open up a place just like it in LA.

“Actually when we first opened back in 2006, there was no gopchang place like this,” says Yoo. “I mean they had gopchang, but not specialty stores like this. So at that time we had like, lines waiting up out the door, like three-hour waiting.”

Byul Gopchang’s selection of banchan, small dishes including kimchi and pickled garlic leaves, in Koreatown, Los Angeles. (Photo by Ashily Kim)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Of course back then, those lines were all Korean customers. But over the years Yoo has definitely seen a change. Recent competitors like Ahgassi Gopchang and Yangmani have also helped expose the dish to non-Koreans while rising in popularity for their variety of marinades.

But Yoo tries to keep Byul on the more traditional side, and gopchang loyalists like Gina know the dehchang is the star.

“Out of all the places in Koreatown, for sure they have the best dehchang here, I think,” she says.

Sean, sitting at the table across from Gina, agrees. He’s been coming to Byul ever since it opened over a decade ago.

“So usually what I eat when I come here is, I order the whole package, but then instead of the makchang, I order the dehchang,” says Sean. “So I have two orders of dehchang and one gopchang, cause you know, that way you get the best of the dehchang, right?”

Specialty soju mixed with Korean fruit vinegar at Byul Gopchang in Koreatown, Los Angeles. (Photo by Ashily Kim) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Sean goes on to say that he chooses gopchang over other anju, or Korean drinking food, because of Byul’s exceptional service. But his friend Sam shakes his head and weighs in with another answer.

“The reason why I come and eat gopchang [instead] of gogi and all that, is because you need some room for your stomach, you know, for soju and stuff,” says Sam. “You gotta drink! And in order to drink, you have to be light on your stomach. In order to be light, you gotta have gopchang rather than [beef] . . . I wanted to drink with my friend, so that’s why we’re here.”

Sean tells Sam to stop the rant, and they down another shot of soju.

Whatever the reason, it’s hard to dispute that gopchang goes particularly well with alcohol—especially for those who might be intimidated by this offal-centric experience. 

This story was made possible by KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.