Judy Rae

Heaven a bit like home – Rice Heaven

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Heaven a bit like home

Rice Heaven offers Korea’s answer to home cooking

by Richard Foss

As much as I like to cook, there are times when I open the refrigerator, rummage through the pantry, and just can’t see anything that looks like a meal. On another day, inspiration might strike from that same view, but today it just isn’t happening. My wife comes home and I suggest a restaurant, and what do you know, that’s the same thing she had for lunch.

Sound familiar? On days like this we have a go-to restaurant that serves a little of this, a little of that, a place where we always get a good meal and nobody’s wallet gets pinched too tightly. Sometimes we even get everything to go so my wife can have dinner in a bathrobe and slippers, because there are evenings when that is the height of luxury. It’s comfort food at its most pure, and you probably don’t have to think very long before you come up with the name of the restaurant where you go when you feel the same way.

I think I have found the restaurant that serves that purpose for the Korean community on the Hill. It’s a little place called Rice Heaven, in the shopping center at the corner of Crenshaw and Rolling Hills Road. The place opened in 2008 as a Japanese restaurant but switched to a mainly Korean menu after a change in ownership a few years later. I hadn’t visited in some time, until recently, when I stopped in with a friend.

The place looks like a lot of quick-serve restaurants, the walls decorated mainly with pictures of the food, the only hint of style some brightly colored hanging lamps. The menu is a list of Korean home cooking favorites, plus a few Japanese items such as chicken or pork katsu and both Japanese and Korean style sushi rolls. The prices are very moderate, so on that visit we over-ordered because we didn’t know how large the portions were.     

I was dining with someone who hadn’t tried gimbap, the Korean-style rice roll. Though gimbap and sushi both involve rice and other items wrapped in seaweed, gimbap isn’t technically sushi because sushi rice is always vinegared. Gimbap rice usually has a dash of sesame oil instead, and instead of fresh fish there is usually a mix of pickled and fresh vegetables and beef, spam, vegetables and fishcake or dried fish. My companion doesn’t like raw fish but was delighted with the mix of chopped beef, pickled daikon, scallion and Asian spinach. On a second visit with my wife we sampled a roll with dried anchovy along with the vegetables, a new experience for her, which she likewise enjoyed. The anchovy isn’t the oily, salty type you get on pizza, and it is used moderately. If you really like a strong anchovy flavor you might ask them to add extra, but we thought the balance was perfect.

On that first visit we decided to order a special item was posted on the wall called Tteok galbi. This turned out to be a pair of small hamburger patties blended with mild seasoning, grilled, and coated with a thick, sweet soy sauce. It was a bit too sweet for me as it was, but was good when topped with a little of the medium-spicy kimchi that arrived at our table along with side dishes of fried tofu and japchae noodles with vegetables. These dishes, called banchan, are refilled as often as you like, but on both visits we had so much food that we didn’t take advantage of that.

On the first trip we tried the Korean fried chicken, which is offered with a spicy sauce, sweet sauce, or half and half. There were four wing pieces in each style to the order, along with rice, cabbage salad, and the banchan, so it was an impressive portion. We both greatly preferred the spicy chicken to the milder one coated with sweet sesame oil.

We enjoyed the chicken while listening to our bowl of bibimbap sizzling gently at the side of the table. Bibimbap is a rice, meat, and vegetable dish that can be served plain or in a hot stone pot so that the rice at the bottom gets crispy. When you mix it together there is a pleasant variety of textures. On top of the rice was a neat arrangement of beef, spinach, mushrooms, carrots, bean sprouts, and zucchini, topped with a fried egg and dusted with shredded seaweed and sesame seeds. It’s a marvelously varied set of flavors, and a fine full meal for only 10 bucks.

On my return visit with my wife she ordered ramyun, the Korean version of Japanese ramen, while I had a plate of spicy squid served on a hot platter. The squid was a Korean classic, a big pile of seafood, grilled onion, scallion, cabbage, and a few jalapeno peppers in a sweet and spicy sauce. My wife’s vegetarian noodle soup was not quite what she expected. She doesn’t usually like spicy food as much as I do so she had ordered the soup assuming it would be mild. But the broth was at least as spicy as my seafood dish. More surprisingly, she liked it. It’s a very flavorful dish with more than just heat to recommend it. She took regular bites of the rice, tofu, and cold noodle salad to cut the heat and surprised herself and me by finishing the whole bowl.

Though the restaurant was almost empty when we came in, as we dined we noticed a steady stream of customers picking up to-go orders, all of them greeting the counter staff in Korean. Beer and wine aren’t served here. Most customers choose soft drinks, tea, or a variety coffees from the self-serve machine at the back of the restaurant. On one visit we brought our own wine. If you’re thinking of doing this I recommend a rose or sparkling white, because those go well with the spices.

Rice Heaven is an interesting little spot to get unpretentious, well-made Korean comfort food. It was good when we had it there and would taste just as good if you enjoy it at home in your bathrobe.  

Rice Heaven is at 2937 Rolling Hills Road in Torrance. Open daily except Sunday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Parking lot, some vegetarian items. Menu at riceheaven.net. Phone 310-257-0134.