It’s a sparkling November afternoon and Audrina Patridge is standing in a cabbage patch near Goseong, South Korea, a harbor town surrounded by snow-capped mountains and icy ocean waters. Patridge, a bubbly television host best known for playing herself on MTV’s The Hills and more-coordinated self on Dancing With The Stars, holds a small knife in her manicured hand and begins to cut at the root of a hulking cruciferous vegetable. Carefully guiding her incision, like a parent the afternoon the training wheels come off, is chef Edward Lee. Lee, a Korean-American chef with Brooklyn roots and a successful restaurant group in Louisville, Kentucky, has been asked to show Patridge — and a small film crew — around South Korea for a 30-minute television show to air on NBC’s First Look program, a food-travel show that runs after Saturday Night Live.
The weeklong production, which is sponsored by the Korean Food Foundation — a government organization tasked with furthering Korean food culture abroad — isn’t focusing on the common tropes associated with Korean food culture in America, specifically barbecue and Westernized fusion foods like tacos or fried chicken. Instead, America’s reality sweetheart is digging up a dozen cabbages that will soon be hauled to an unheated shack and cut, brined and seasoned in the autumnal ritual known as kimjang. You can think of the ritualistic act as making kimchi the very old-fashioned way — where insane quantities of chives, shredded daikon radish, green onions and a broth made from kombu, dried pollock and anchovies are mixed with the pungent sauce of fermented shrimp, fish sauce, salt and a crimson Korean red pepper called gochugaru. The colorful paste is then stuffed between the leaves of dozens of heads of brined Napa cabbage, buried in the ground and unearthed a month later. And it’s all captured by the kimchi-spattered NBC cameras.
Video: Audrina Patridge and chef Edward Lee in South Korea
It was not long ago when Korean food in America was nothing more than a curiosity (at best) and a cliché (at worst). Doing Korean was a fun night out with friends to eat a bunch of grilled meat, maybe get a little loaded on soju and have your Korean pal order from a poorly worded, oddly photographed, overwhelmingly extensive menu of soups, stews and steaming platters. It’s certainly not bad, any of that (particularly if it was followed by a trip to the karaoke bar). But something significantly changed with Korean food in 2014.
I’ve admittedly been following the story closer than most, as I’m currently writing a cookbook on the topic to be published by Clarkson Potter. But through a series of events, restaurant openings, media mentions and witnessing Audrina Patridge geek out over Korean abalone first-hand, it became clear that Korean food had a very big 2014 — making serious strides to “catch up” with better-known Asian cuisines like Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese.
“It will only be a matter of time before kimchi is as common knowledge as salsa,” says Beverly Kim, the chef-owner of Chicago’s wildly popular Korean-American restaurant, Parachute. Opened with her husband Johnny Clark in May, the former Top Chef contestant attracted major buzz for cooking that married traditional Korean dishes and flavors with contemporary presentation and out-of-the-box creativity. For example, the couple make a classic Korean dumpling (mandu), but instead of traditional pork and chives, they stuff it with caramelized cauliflower and tamarind-pear chutney. The chewy rice cake dish — called ddeukbokki — takes a Roman holiday and is tossed with country ham, pecorino, black pepper and egg.
Kim credits her success to cooking with “robust and soulful flavors” while keeping her price point low and restaurant’s casual vibe targeted to a younger audience. The effort has worked, and in November, Parachute was named Restaurant of the Year by Eater Chicago. But Parachute isn’t the only Korean restaurant making noise in the Windy City. Edward Kim (no relation) continues to excel at his year-and-a-half-old Wicker Park restaurant Mott Street with cooking that not only executes fusion to the T (kimchi empanadas FTW), but also dives into traditional Korean cooking with a square of housemade napa kimchi, pork butt and rice “lasagna” that is basically the best kimchi bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice) I’ve ever had.
Don’t let anybody tell you differently: Los Angeles is the spiritual center of Korean food in America and home to the largest Korean population in America with some 250,000 Korean-born people living there, according to a 2012 U.S. Census Bureau report. L.A.’s Koreatown is mind-bogglingly massive (in 2012, critic Jonathan Gold wrote a master thesis on the topic for the LA Weekly, detailing over 60 dishes at 60 restaurants). But while the size of the Los Angeles K-Town brings wonderful variety (and a great way to kill a weekend), many of the restaurants are still very modest, family-owned operations — where English is written and spoken in limited bursts, and the rustic surroundings were hardly a place where famously night-owlish Angelinos would want to party. It’s a place, more likely, where the party would end at 3 a.m. for bowls of a popular milky bone marrow soup called soulongtang. In other words, Koreatown wasn’t very cool.
This all changed in a very big way when chef and food truck legend Roy Choi teamed up with the Sydell Group (of New York’s NoMad Hotel and Palm Springs’s Saguaro) and took over Koreatown’s sagging Wilshire Plaza Hotel as a sort of creative and culinary director, re-branding it as The Line, opening a street-level restaurant called POT, and along the way making the mid-century modernist tower at the corner of Normandie and Wilshire a gold-certified hotspot. “This is as powerful of a street corner as Bleecker and Bowery, an intersection that is O.G.,” Choi told me in the fall of 2013, with a twinkle in his eye. In the year-plus since our talk, Choi, then little known outside of Los Angeles, has gone on to release a popular cookbook/memoir with Anthony Bourdain, team with chef Daniel Patterson on an open-minded fast food concept in San Francisco and shape The Line into the powerhouse that it is today.
“POT and The Line Hotel brought an energy that Koreatown really needed,” says Eater LA editor Matt Kang, a highly engaged chronicler of the Los Angeles restaurant scene, who also happens to be Korean-American and a longtime habitué of the neighborhood. Kang concludes that the hotel has become a draw for people who wouldn’t typically visit Koreatown to eat, drink and party because there weren’t any large-scale venues that didn’t cater exclusively to Koreans. As a result of the hotel’s popularity, Koreatown has become the top nightlife destination in Los Angeles, for both Korean-Americans and coolest kids in the city. “The Line Hotel is the place where parties start and end, and it just so happens to be in the geographical center of the neighborhood,” he says.
As for the rise of Korean cuisine in America, Kang is not surprised. “The food is accessible, comforting and infinitely varied, with plenty of ingredients hitting regular grocery stores, making it easier to cook Korean food at home.” But more than that, he says, the cuisine itself, when well-executed, almost never gets tired. “Like Chinese, Thai or Japanese food, it’s truly possible to eat it more than five times a week.”
Back in my hometown of New York City, where the restaurant rhythms of the foodie elite can be quickly quantified through a quick vertical swipe on your mobile phone, it feels like some people are eating Korean food seven times a week. Korean food has always been a major part of dining out in New York City, with two vibrant Koreatowns in Manhattan and Queens, as well as a growing community in Northern New Jersey right across the George Washington Bridge. But 2014 was the year the food media really started to take notice of the deep bench of restaurants their city has been blessed with. (I know firsthand about the growing interest in Korean food coverage from colleagues in the press because I’ve served as an official and unofficial source for a number of stories.)
By far the biggest thing to happen to Korean food on the media front in a while was New York Times critic Pete Wells dropping a major review of 12 Korean restaurants in Queens, a project months in the making and one that clearly took considerable time and resources.
“There are hundreds of restaurants in Murray Hill, Auburndale, Bayside and beyond, serving famous Korean dishes and obscure ones: beef barbecue and blood sausage; wheat noodles in deep steaming bowls and arrowroot noodles in broth chilled with ice crystals; tofu casseroles and live octopus,” writes Wells, completely getting the big picture. Up until this point, writing about Korean food in the Times was sadly limited to the review of a fading barbecue joint in 2009 by then-critic Sam Sifton, preceded by a thoroughly researched “next big thing” feature by Florence Fabricant in 1999. This is, of course, outside the orbit of Hooni Kim, which I’ll get into shortly.
Wells’ piece is a strong argument that the best Korean restaurants are those that specialize in one or two dishes, which any Los Angeles resident with a taste for over-fermented kimchi jjigae will tell you. The critic does his homework, covering the samgyupsal (pork belly) at Han Joo Chik Naeng Myun and the gamjatang (a pork neck, wild sesame seed and black pepper stew) at Geo Si Gi. He even checks out one of the borough’s better hwe (raw seafood) restaurants, discovering Korea’s love of eating freshly butchered fish; fluke and sea squirts are pulled live from giant tanks and sliced up, served with a toughness caused by the onset of rigor mortis. The chewy pieces are served with chojang (a red sauce made from fermented pepper paste, rice vinegar and pineapple juice) and sesame oil. It couldn’t be more further from the Japanese sushi bar experience, which Wells deftly points out.
“Pete Wells’ article on Flushing Korean restaurants is a game-changer as far as Korean food is concerned in NYC,” says Hooni Kim, chef-owner of Hanjan and Danji, two landmark Korean-American restaurants that have been reviewed favorably by the Times , with the latter awarded a Michelin star.
Kim, who grew up in New York City, points out that Manhattan Koreatown has been around for 30 years, generally without the ambition to progress Korean cuisine beyond barbecue. “The format is and has been the same for the past 30 years with 100-plus item menus and the compromising or toning down authentic Korean flavors to better cater to the Americanized palates.”
But in Flushing it’s a different story, which Wells tackles in his piece. “Restaurant owners are first-generation Koreans who cook for other first-generation Koreans, with flavors more in tune with what Koreans in Korea are eating now,” says Kim. “His article makes it easier for everyone now to realize how inferior Manhattan Koreatown food really is and has been for the past 10 years.”
This was all, of course, before the recent opening of a branch of Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong in the heart of Manhattan’s Koreatown. Now, big disclosure here: I’m writing my book, Koreatown: A Cookbook, with the restaurant’s young chef, Deuki Hong. So I’m obviously biased and won’t comment on the food. But what I can report is that since the restaurant officially opened its doors in early December 2014, there’ve been one- to two-hour waits pretty much continually (though hour-long waits at Korean barbecue joints can be common on weekends), which can be attributed to the media’s growing interest in Korean cuisine.
Soon after opening, stories appeared on Grub Street and Eater, including top placement on the Heat Map. From my seat, it appears Baekjeong’s success can be credited to a few factors, which as Hooni Kim notes, has been lacking in Manhattan: modern design, focused menu, top-notch service and high-quality ingredients. It seems like simple math, but in world of churn-and-burn Korean barbecue restaurants, nothing is a given.
Whether it be Chicago, Los Angeles or New York — not to mention Atlanta (shout out to Sobban!), Seattle or Oakland — Korean food is most certainly on the rise and expanding beyond the traditional neighborhoods. “I’m seeing an increase in overall quality for restaurants that aren’t in Koreatown but might be in the suburbs or outskirts,” says Kang on the growth in Los Angeles. “It used to be that the farther you were from Koreatown, the worse the Korean food. That’s not necessarily true anymore.”
And while Hooni Kim agrees that Korean food is on the rise, he still thinks there’s room for considerable growth. “The year 2014 has been tremendous in introducing Korean food to more and more people, but I still don’t think it’s considered ‘mainstream’ as Japanese, Chinese or even Vietnamese and Thai,” he says. “If you’re a ‘foodie’ in America, you know and have an opinion about Korean food. But we’re still a long ways from primetime sitcoms ordering Korean food for delivery instead of Chinese or Indian.”