As excitement for Korean food bubbles over like a pot of doenjang jjigae left on the burner, more and more adventurous eaters are being indoctrinated into the world of kalbi, oversized mandu, and gamjatang. But why now? For a cuisine that has long had to play catch up to the better-known foods of Asia—specifically Chinese, Japanese, and Thai—Korean food found its place in the conversation for a couple reasons. First, credit must be awarded to Korean-American chefs David Chang and Roy Choi, whose innovative cooking (rice cakes with pork sausage ragu, bulgogi tacos) experienced major cross-over appeal within the mainstream. But on top of a few sliver-bullet dishes, Korean food has exploded in part because Asian cuisines in general have grown in popularity. Yunnan, Isan, and Hokkaido have been given their time in the spotlight, and Korean food has been swept up in it all.
That said, there is still so much to uncover and explore in the packed—and oftentimes clandestine—corridors of Koreatowns across the nation. While researching Koreatown, a cookbook I wrote with Kang Ho Dong Baekjong chef Deuki Hong, I traveled around the country talking to cooks and ajummas in places like Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington D.C., San Francisco, New York, and the beating heart of Korean food in America, Los Angeles. Through these travels I learned that there were no hard rules for eating Korean food—and don’t ever let anybody tell you that ever! But there are some highly useful guidelines you should follow to make the most of your experience—especially as a non-Korean outsider trying to crack the code of these secret-ish hangouts. From scoring points with the waiters, to understanding drinking games, to why you want to be close to the buzzer at your table, follow these 10 eating and drinking commandments to help you feel like you’ve already been around the block once or twice.
1. Barbecue is the great Korean food gateway drug—but look beyond it.
It’s likely that your first taste of Korean food came not at the hands of a skilled chef, but the hands of yourself. Cue the Korean barbecue restaurant, where the grilling of pork belly and marinated short rib is conducted at the center of a table typically by you and your pack of friends, who may or may not have drunk a bottle of Jameson at the karaoke parlor a few hours earlier. Korean barbecue, which in actuality is more grilling than American-styled low-and-slow cookery, is popular for a number of reasons. It’s mild and sweet, not spicy or funky, which plays well with a Western audience. It’s also a convivial dinning experience—who doesn’t want to dive into a platters of marinated meat? But the fact of the matter is this: Korean barbecue is only the beginning of this story. “There’s so much more to explore beyond massive amounts of grilled meats,” says Zach Brooks, the Los-Angeles based founder of Midtown Lunch and a certified Korean food nut. As you will read below, there are lesser-known soups made with bone broth simmering continually since the Clinton Administration. And there is seafood, lots of seafood, stir fried with high heat and chile paste. Back in Korea, where beef is expensive and consumption is infrequent and reserved for special occasions, barbecue is a once-a-week to once-a-month occurrence. This leaves many meals to fill in the gaps, be it ojingeo bokkeum (stir-fried squid) or jogaetang (spicy clam soup). (Photo: Gabi Porter)
2. Love banchan, live banchan, order more banchan.
They say that Korean restaurants should be judged by the quality of their banchan, the various small plates that land on the table to mark the beginning of a Korean meal. They also say that a restaurant should also be judged by the pace at which it is refilled by the servers (almost always free of charge, included in the price of the entrees). The word banchan translates to “side dish,” but in actuality it’s a critical part of the meal—a pickled, fishy, or bright accent to grilled meat or bubbling soups. The most common banchan is kimchi, which you’ve probably had piled atop a taco at some point in your life. But kimchi is actually more of a verb than a noun, and extends into the fermenty union of sauce and cucumbers, garlic chives, boiled eggs, and daikon radish and pineapples. Banchan doesn’t stop there, however. There are seasoned vegetables called namaul (soy sauce kissed spinach, eggplant, bean sprouts), braised tofu, and eggy potato salad. And when you run out, make sure to ask for more of the stuff you like. It’s not impolite. It’s Korean. If there’s a buzzer on the table, even better. (Photo: Gabi Porter)
3. To find great restaurants, look up!
From the vast Koreatowns of Los Angeles and New York City, to smaller communities in Atlanta and Houston, the businesses tend to stack on top of each other. “I always tell people to look up, not forward, because they don’t know what they are going to miss,” says Esther Choi, chef-owner of New York City’s Mokbar. When wandering through a Koreatown, I like to take random elevators to random floors. Sometimes you’ll find a room with a mattress and a Korean grandma screaming at you. But other times you’ll come across a hidden treasure, like the late great Restaurant Forte Baden Baden, which then New York Times columnist Peter Meehan spotted nearly ten years ago on the second floor of Manhattan’s K-Town. If you’re on 32nd Street in NYC, check out the Third Floor Cafe (315 5th Ave) or second-floor establishment Pocha 32 (15 W 32nd St). In L.A., go to Touhmi (3500 W 6th St, Ste 311) in the Wilshire Center. (Photo: Yelp/Joolie T.)
4. Koreans are the soup and stew masters of Asia. Order a big pot of it.
There, I said it. I’m going to the mat with this one. Walk into any respectable Korean restaurant and there’s going to be a large cauldron of something special bubbling in the back. Soup is a foundation in the Korean diet. This has something to do with the fact that Korea is a very cold place, with a climate very close to Minnesota—short and hot summers, long and cold winters. Doenjang jjigae is a soup made with fermented soybean paste, beef, squash and clams, and one of the fixtures. Its earthiness, saltiness, and crazy depth of flavor can be found at places like Kang Ho Dong Baekjong (1 E 32nd St) in NYC. And that’s just one of dozens of soups to seek out, which include soondubu jjigae (spicy soft tofu soup), samgyetang (chicken broth with a young chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng and jujubes), yukgaejang (spicy shredded beef) and one of my favorites, kongbiji jjigae. “I’m crazy about kongbiji jjigae too,” says L.A.-based writer Mary H.K. Choi about the porridge-like soup that is made from the puree of soaked soy beans. “It absolutely looks like vomit.” Esther Choi prefers a stew of meaty pork neck bones boiled with potatoes, black pepper, and wild sesame seeds. “Gamjatang is really the fucking best, and I’ve been obsessed for a long time.” Head to Masil House (400 Main St, Fort Lee, NJ) for a stellar version. (Photo: Facebook/EatatPot)
5. Seek out a hwe restaurant for premium seafood.
Korea has 1,500 miles of coastline, and a peninsula surrounded by some of the cleanest waters in the world. You know the mythical Japanese fish culture? Tsukiji, Jiro, ikejime, and all that? We’re talking about the same waters. But Korean’s idea of seafood, particularly when served “sashimi style”—that is, raw and sliced thin—has a much different approach than their neighbors. Koreans covet the freshest seafood humanly possible, so fresh that there’s a long tradition of Korean fish tank restaurants that specialize in saengseon hwe. At these restaurants, which are found in Koreatowns around the country, diners place their order and the chefs go out back to rows and rows of tanks, where they pull the fish out, alive, butcher it, and serve before the first round of soju has been finished.
Unlike the raw fish served in a Japanese style, where it is aged from days to weeks, saengseon hwe is a bit tougher; as with all freshly killed meat, rigor mortis soon sets in. For Koreans, the chewiness is all part of the deal. And instead of dipping the pieces of snapper or halibut in soy sauce, Koreans prefer a sweet and tangy condiment called chojang—a combination of rice vinegar, gochujang, and pineapple juice. New York City chef Hooni Kim calls it the “mother of all seafood sauces” and uses it in many dishes at his restaurants Danji and Hanjan. Try A-Won (913 S Vermont Ave) in Los Angeles or Bada Story (161-23 Crocheron Ave, Flushing) in New York. (Photos courtesy Matt Rodbard)
6. Study up on Korean drinking games.
Drinking is a near national sport in Korea, and a meal in Koreatown is more than likely accompanied with a bottle of lightweight beer (Hite or OB are the popular brands), soju, or makgeolli—a low-proof (around 6% alcohol by volume) unfiltered rice wine that was originally consumed by farmers at the end of long days. “Koreans truly believe that to get to know somebody you have to break them,” Esther Choi stresses. “And the only way to break them is to drink alcohol.” The Korean workplace culture revolves around the idea of getting to know your co-workers through soju and a trip to the noribang (the Korean term for karaoke). Drinking games are a big part of the deal. “If you don’t know how to drink, and play drinking games, you are never going to survive in corporate world,” advises Esther Choi. These games have names like 007, Titanic (involving a shot glass bobbing in a pint of beer), and The Image Game. “And you should always drink with the waiters,” instructs Esther Choi. “They will love you for it, and give you the best free shit, like another bottle of soju.”
My personal favorite is not a game, but more of an approach to drinking. Seoul Train is sort of like a Korean boilermaker—a shot and a beer tag-teamed with one goal in mind: Getting turnt. Line several beer glasses in a row, leaving a ½ inch space between each glass, and fill each halfway up with beer. Place a shot glass on the lip of each of the beer glasses, making sure they are spaced close enough so that they clink each other. Fill the glasses with soju. A brave participant should then gently tap the first shot glass, causing a domino effect, with the soju shot landing in the beer with a minimal to typhoon-like splash. Circulate the soju-beer cocktails and drink in a long, healthy shot. Repeat. (Photos: Sam Horine)
7. After you’ve had a few drinks, it’s time to visit to pojangmacha.
The term pojangmacha literally means “covered wagon.” The tented restaurants that line the streets in Seoul are modest affairs—colorful places with stubby plastic stools and Styrofoam dinnerware. In America, the restaurants, often called the abbreviated pocha, have come indoors, but still offer a similar mix of dishes that are best eaten with alcohol known as anju. These include things like chicken feet sauced with liquid fire (buldak bal), soy sauce braised pig’s feet (jokbal), and soups meant to be spooned in the wee-hours. Two in particular, haejangguk (hearty and made with beef broth and cabbage) and seolleongtang (milky bone broth with beef brisket and somen noodles), are meant to prevent the inevitable hangover. You can find these types of places all over the country, in Georgia (Dan Moo Ji, 3230 Steve Reynolds Blvd,
Duluth), Illinois (Dancen, 5114 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago), New York (Arang, 161-16 Northern Blvd, Flushing), and, of course, California (DGM, 3275 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles). (Photo: Sam Horine)
8. Make a pilgrimage to the Koreatown mecca in Los Angeles.
Pulitzer Prize–winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold’s last story at LA Weekly was a 10,973-word masterpiece detailing Korean food in Los Angeles. “Koreatown, which occupies an expanding area between Hancock Park and downtown, may well be the most vibrant expat enclave anywhere in the world, a neighborhood of Korean driving ranges and Korean herbalists, karaoke rooms and supermarkets, movie complexes and modern shopping malls that could have been plucked straight out of Seoul,” he writes. Koreatown in Los Angeles is its own planet, a sprawling community of 100,000 Korean-Americans that surpasses the size and population of every Chinatown in the United States. The style of Korean restaurants in L.A. varies widely, and joins a growing Mexican, Vietnamese, and Pakistani population that has moved in and set up shop. But the vast majority of the eating there is Korean, and you’ll find modest soup restaurants, next to dimly lit pojangmachas, next to a small storefront selling kimbap to teenagers—with a dentist’s office, massage parlor, and locksmith upstairs, with signs only in Hangul.
My first experience with L.A.’s Koreatown was a decade ago and involved scary cheap all-you-can-eat barbecue, and waking up in my hotel in West Hollywood with one hell of a hangover. But since my initiation, I’ve gone back many times (six visits for the book research alone), and each trip I discover something new—like the food hall hidden in the basement of a shopping mall, where I had the best crab experience in my life. That took place at Soban (4001 W Olympic Blvd), where a husband-and-wife couple from Jeolla-do, the province of Korea’s southwestern tip that is known as the country’s breadbasket, make magic with raw crab guts and Korean spices. “Korean marinated raw crab is one of those dozens of Korean dishes you’ve probably never eaten, and one of those things you want to eat from a specialist for obvious reasons,” says Brooks. Similarly, The Corner Place (2819 James M Wood Blvd) does dongchimi guksu—a cold and refreshing white radish kimchi noodle soup. The recipe is such a secret that the owners strictly forbid takeout or doggy bags. Mary H.K. Choi agrees that in the sprawling neighborhood, it’s all about the specialty restaurants. “Like the spot that does spicy crab soup or seafood tofu soup really well, or the fire samgyetang place is where I want to go. I’m not mad at BBQ and those Korean places with massive plastic menus like a Denny’s, but I like the hole-in-the-walls.” (Photos courtesy Matt Rodbard)
9. Seek out jjampong, jajamyeon, budae jjigae and other fusion dishes with a cult-like following.
Korea has been classified as the most homogenous nation on the planet, with low immigration rates and a cuisine that has been left unspoiled for generations. Even with Starbucks lining every major intersection, and a strong interest in Western films and music, the food is a mostly “for us, by us” affair. That said, there are still a few fusion dishes that saw popularity on the peninsula, then later in Koreatown. Pro tip: eat them when you can. A quick glance at Google Maps will reveal that Korea shares a border with China in the north, and accordingly Chinese food customs have crossed borders—namely mandu (Korean dumplings) and noodle-based dishes like jjampong and jajamyeon. Jjampong is a spicy seafood noodle soup, loaded with mussels, shrimp, octopus and udon noodles. Jajamyeon is black like the night, and not the typical Korean flavor mashup—there is no funk, no spice. Basically, it’s udon noodles slathered in a black bean sauce called chunjang with white onions. The reason these two dishes are worth mentioning is that Koreans LOVE THEM. Another dish is budae jjigae, often referred to as army base stew. It’s a story of desperation and ingenuity born out of necessity during the Korean War. During that tumultuous time, impoverished Koreans were forced to use leftover U.S. army rations for sustenance. Ever since, and in far happier times, this spicy stew bobbing with Uncle Sam’s finest—Spam, hot dogs, and processed American cheese—has remained in Korea’s culinary orbit. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
10. You must finish a night out in K-town with patbingsu.
Alright, so it’s true that dessert isn’t the number one priority when eating in Koreatown. There are plenty of chain bakeries and coffee shops to end up at for sure. That said, you ain’t going to find crêpe Suzette. But there’s one Korean dessert you need to keep on your radar: patbingsu. It’s basically sweet red beans mixed with finely shaved ice, drizzled with tropical fruit syrup, condensed milk, green tea powder, whipped cream, and all sorts of other goodies. b Blockheads Shavery (multiple locations) in Los Angeles is more or less the undisputed king in the United States, at least. Patbingsu is rich, so you’ll want to get one with many spoons. “And, get over the ‘blergh legumes for dessert’ biases if that’s where you’re at,” instructs Mary H.K. Choi. “It’s boring.” (Photo: Yelp/Herbert C.)