For years, Koreatown was L.A.’s coolest neighborhood that remained under-the-radar, full of mystery and intrigue, with rumors of hostess bars serving alcohol well past the 2am curfew. More recently though, the curtain has been lifted: the nearly three-square mile area—which has the highest concentration of restaurants in the country—has transformed into a nationally recognized dining destination.
Although most of the scene still centers around homey restaurants serving traditional Korean fare, newer places like Roy Choi’s POT and Commissary, Gary Menes’ Le Comptoir, and Nick Erven’s Saint Martha reflect the neighborhood’s broadening palate. Nevertheless, it’s important to pay respect to the bars and restaurants that form the foundation of this densely packed, food-filled district. Here are five restaurants that serve as an essential primer for the joys of K-Town feasting.
There are few, if any, Korean bars that don’t offer some type of food to help their customers soak up all of that Hite and Soju. Longtime favorite OB Bear is one of those places, and it’s a great spot to catch up with friends after work or watch the Dodgers game with fellow non-Time Warner subscribers. Go for the plate of the fried chicken wings, often slathered in a sweet-spicy red glaze that requires plenty of finger licking and cheap napkins. A side order of pa moochim (green onion salad) is generally a good idea to balance the greasy goodness.
What to order: Fried chicken wings, green onion salad, spicy stir-fried squid
Seongbukdong is the kind of place you might bring your parents to, a quiet reprieve from the loud K-Pop music and heavy drinking that make up most of the scene. The hushed tones are inspired by the Korean country-style cooking available here. The two dishes you come here for are the spicy braised mackerel and the beef short ribs. The surf-and-turf combo is naturally a perfect pairing, the spicy, oily funk of the mackerel (there is some work required to pick through the tiny bones, but the reward is totally worth it) tempered by the incredibly tender galbi jiim served in a sweetened soy broth. Recently the price and portion size of the short ribs have gone in the wrong directions, but you’re not likely to find a better version, save for a friend’s mom or grandma. Pro tip: Go to Dan Sung Sa a few doors down before or after to satisfy your drinking needs.
What to order: Braised beef short ribs, braised mackerel, spicy octopus bibimbap
Korean BBQ is most people’s introduction to Korean food. At its simplest, it’s just grilled meat, a concept understood and appreciated by every culture. But not all KBBQ is created equal. There are of course the all-you-can-eat joints, the combo places that boast top-quality cuts of meat available in different size sets, and even seafood-only specialists that require serious gloves in order to pluck all of the hot shellfish directly from the grill. Kang Hodong Baekjong (which just opened a second location in NYC) is undoubtedly the most popular; Corner Place has long been lauded for its no-frills approach; but Ten-Raku might just be the best of all. The quality of its meat is on par with any of the other top tier options in the city. The banchan spread is always fresh and plentiful, and the restaurant serves a stellar spicy octopus noodle soup. But most crucial of all, it takes reservations, a rarity in the world of Korean BBQ. Added bonus point for the flat-screen televisions always playing sports.
What to order: Octopus hot pot (with fried rice after), beef tartare (a la carte or as part of the larger combos)
It’s all about the bossam at Kobawoo, a longstanding Koreatown institution that’s received no shortage of praise over the thirty years that they’ve been in business. Its signature dish features neatly arranged slices of fatty pork belly that have been steamed with minimal seasonings, leaving nothing but pure porcine flavor. The assortment of accoutrements adds to the experience: a thin round of pickled daikon radish, a smear of fermented shrimp paste, pickled jalapeños. One order of bossam can be more than enough food for a party of two or three, especially when bulked up with jokbal (boiled pig’s feet). But you have to make room for the crunchy haemul pajun (seafood pancake) loaded with octopus and green onions. Pair it with makkoli, a milky-white fermented rice wine that’s not as heavy as beer and has a lower alcohol content than soju.
What to order: Bossam, seafood pancake
The soups and stews of Koreatown may not generate the same excitement and Instagram snaps as the BBQ houses or shaved-ice specialists, but they are perhaps the most important aspect of Korean food after staples like rice and kimchi. It seems as if there are soups for every occasion: the ice-cold naemyung with long, chewy noodles on a hot summer afternoon; the ginger-laced chicken soup samgyetang said to provide an overall boost to one’s health; budae jjigae, the American-influenced spicy ramen stew with spam, canned weenies, and other goodies that work as both a hangover cure and preventive measure. There’s also the black goat stew at Mirak, located in the corner of a tightly packed strip mall on the outskirts of Koreatown. The soup base is slightly spicy, but the large chunks of tender goat meat and peppery perilla leaves are clearly where all the magic happens. It’s a hearty, soul-satisfying bowl (not to mention the purported health benefits for the male libido), and when you’ve almost finished it, a waitress adds rice, kimchi, and seaweed to the leftover broth for a top-notch goat fried rice. Not only is Mirak a good excuse to stray from the heart of Koreatown, but it’s also one of few non-birria restaurants where Angelenos can enjoy properly prepared goat.
What to order: Black Goat Casserole (stew)