Los Angeles: These Are The First 9 Restaurants To Try In Koreatown
Spicy crab stew to tender galbi to all that banchan
A refrain we keep hearing is that it can be tricky to navigate Koreatown, a Los Angeles neighborhood with wall-to-wall dining options, many signs in Hangeul and some of the best Korean food outside of Seoul. So with that, let me offer you eight restaurants to visit first. And once you’re done with those, we can talk some more.
Joshua Lurie is the founder of Los Angeles-based restaurant and travel blog Food GPS.
Hwa Shin Kim runs a pair of restaurants that revere the pig, with a porcine sheriff standing “guard” at the entrance to her Pico Boulevard original — and a number of pigurines gracing countertops at the shinier spinoff. Of course pork is a draw, particularly gochujang-marinated spare ribs that pile up on a sizzling, onion-lined platter. Pork neck stew is on a number of tables, and even spicy kimchi stew sports chunks of pork belly, along with pungent sheets of the name ingredient. Still, don’t sleep on dishes starring other animals. Marinated sirloin beef arrives in raw medallions, saturated with oyster sauce, sesame oil and garlic, cooked on a tabletop grill. Also not to miss: squid (or octopus), pan-broiled with gochujang, vegetables and springy vermicelli. Drink a pitcher of ubiquitous barley tea, or extinguish the heat with a fruity wine. 3407 W. 6th St., Koreatown, 213.365.8773; 4135 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 323-733-8333
2. JAE BU DO
Korean cuisine has become synonymous with grilled meat in Los Angeles, but of course the culture has regional range. This is especially evident at restaurant Jae Bu Do, named after an island in the Yellow Sea near the North Korea border. Owner Yuchong Kim offers different set menus — even the most basic can feed a family for $44.99. Higher prices entitle diners to delicacies like abalone, which spins in its shell on the charcoal grill like the girl in The Exorcist. Place your order and shellfish starts flooding the table in waves: sea scallops and mussels on the half-shells, small and large clams, octopus, jumbo shrimp, foil-wrapped oysters and more. Complimentary sides (called banchan or panchan) include an oversized bowl of shrimp and snapper ceviche submerged in a spicy chile sauce, a crispy mung bean pancake, and sizzling corn sweetened with cream and onion. The capper is a cauldron of peppery vegetable noodle soup. 474 N. Western Ave., Koreatown, 323-467-2900
Si Woo Yoo doesn’t seem to value décor, unless you consider videos of the Pollack-drying process fascinating, but his small menu of Korean comfort food draws a crowd. Soban has become locally renowned for his gan jang gae jang, silky raw crab marinated in soy sauce and served in the spotted shell. The chef-owner has his own version of braised fish, which features skin-on black cod, daikon slabs and a savory soy-chile sauce. He also serves bone-in beef short ribs, but braises his version in a spicy red chile, garlic and onion sauce. It’s not on the menu, but be sure to order the seafood bowl with two tones of tobiko - green and orange – cuts of raw squid, crunchy abalone, jicama and sprouts. And if you’re wondering, yes, the restaurant carries dried pollack, which Si Woo Yoo slathers with gochujang and grills to a texture that falls short of leathery but still requires scissors. 4001 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown, 323-936-9106
4. JUN WON
At some spots in Koreatown, banchan can be an afterthought, but not at Jun Won, which Jung Ye Jun named for her son, who now runs the restaurant — while she runs a dedicated panchan shop nearby. Her complimentary small plates might include roasted shishito peppers with chiles and garlic cloves, green peppers stuffed with carrot and pork meatball and bitter dandelion greens. Pan-fried fish is noteworthy at Jun Won including a fillet of rich atka mackerel that’s littered with tiny edible bones, and rosy ocean trout that touts a crisp, golden crust. Other dishes include flaky beltfish buried in vegetables and gochujang, and bean curd soup with kimchi and orange soybean slurry. Cephalopods are particularly popular in Koreatown, and Jun Won’s sautéed octopus is habit-forming, tossed with a popular complement of cucumber, scallion and, yes, more gochujang. 3100 W. 8th St., Koreatown, 213-383-8855
This inconspicuous restaurant in a central Koreatown strip mall belongs to Kyuong Sun Lee, who seems to favor solid versions of homestyle Korean standbys over unusual offerings. Mapo’s attention to detail extends to panchan, which might include the kooky Korean raisin-studded version of macaroni salad, or perhaps bouncy, chile-slathered acorn jellies. The delicious soup with dough flakes, served in Stone Pot hints, at a Mapo confidence — and they should have some, since the delicate broth hosts irregularly shaped noodles, clams and strips of egg. Mapo advertises bibimbap and beef soup on wall-mounted photos, though we’re at least as likely to order roasted fish, which might feature luscious butterflied yi meun, or perhaps crisp-skinned sole, which arrives as a trio of fillets. 3611 W. 6th St., Koreatown, 213-736-6668
6. ON DAL 2
Call it either a study or a declination, but no matter the name, Koreans embrace the concept as much as nouveau French chefs. In Koreatown, restaurateurs have built multi-course meals that play on proteins like goat, duck and pork belly. At On Dal 2, they focus on sweet swimming crab. Staffers start by serving a spicy crab stew in a bubbling, tabletop vessel that also contains vegetables. They’ll strip the shell of prized roe, mix with sprouts, douse with rice and sauce, and serve. They’ll inevitably pinch dough from a sheet and drop it in the stew. Eventually, your server stir-fries the remaining broth with sesame oil, bean powder, curry, cilantro, nori and chile paste, which forms an addictive fried rice, complete with crusty sections that stick to the pan. The owner’s also proud of pork ribs, but since each dish requires a multi-person commitment, we’re content with crab and the cups of sweet rice tea that send customers on their way. 4566 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, 323-933-3228
7. PARK’S BARBEQUE
Jenee Kim, an enterprising chef who franchised a popular Seoul meat emporium in 2003, has earned a following with celebrities from both Korea and the U.S. thanks to her prime meats, which stand out in a sea of AYCE competition. Galbi is probably the most popular cut, with tender short rib hand-carved to form a diamond pattern. The seasoned special pork belly has more punch thanks to a higher fat content and a savory housemade marinade. High rollers also have the option to upgrade to American Wagyu. Still, it is possible for a vegetarian to enjoy Park’s thanks to sizzling mushrooms, which crisp up on the grill. Other special dishes avoid the stainless steel grill altogether, including spicy noodle stew and a pancake studded with rock shrimp and scallions. They also have a deluxe bibimbap that comes in a stone pot and contains shrimp, smelt eggs, kidney beans, mushrooms and more. 955 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown, 213-380-2084
Seongbukdong might be named for an upscale area of Seoul that houses the Presidential Palace, but this rustic strip mall establishment has become a dining destination thanks to its homey comfort food. A limited menu consists of soups, casseroles and grilled dishes. Braised mackerel is a standout, with boiled and braised slices soaking up flavors from chile sauce, kimchi and onions. The dish of steamed beef short rib may not look grandiose, but meat like this is typically reserved for well-off Koreans. At Seongbukdong, big chunks of beef are marinated with soy sauce and sugar and braised until tender with mild green peppers. Octopus and vegetables over rice in a stone pot features tender tentacles, plenty of gochujang and clumps of crusty rice bits. 3303 W. 6th St., Koreatown, 213-738-8977
9. YOUNG DONG
If ever there was a Korean dish that thrived on subtlety, it would be sul lung tang, the beef bone soup that for some people from that country, epitomizes comfort. Koreatown has sul lung tang both cloudy and clear, and one of the leading examples is available at Young Dong, which favors a clear broth and a simple setting. It might not be instantly apparent how to proceed once the bowl arrives on the table, but at Ho Bin Choi’s restaurant, you’ll receive several additives, including scallions, salt, pepper, chile, steamed white rice and sheets of kimchi that people can scissor-cut into the soup. Sul lung tang is available with a choice of cuts, and we prefer tender sliced beef cheeks. Remove the meat and dip in savory soy-jalapeno mustard sauce. Eating sul lung tang more or less adheres to ritual, and it’s quite comforting at Young Dong. Not everything they serve is S.L.T. The restaurant also has a spicy brisket soup with shredded beef, daikon and a chile-infused broth that’s hot enough to send steam shooting from some people’s ears. A more calming option is the spicy cold noodles with vegetables, more or less a salad, with sliced brisket gracing mixed greens and soba in a pool of gochujang. 3828 Wilshire Boulevard, Koreatown, 213-386-3729
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