Thursday, August 23, 2007

Putting the Korea Back in Koreatown

I've lived in Koreatown for four years now, and I realized that, though I eat Korean food regularly, I have precious few Korean write-ups on this site, so I thought I'd provide a quick list of a few of my favorites.

The amount of Korean food available in my neighborhood is staggering. I've been eating Korean for years, and I still feel that I'm just starting to understand all of the styles and genres of Korean cuisine.

Now, most of the places I go are accepting of non-Koreans, at least enough to have English menus, but there is a whole world of Korean restaurants that appear to have no interest in serving non-Koreans, no English menus, no English signs, nada. In these establishments, where I'm usually treated somewhere between curiosity and annoyance, I employ a point and hope strategy...point to the menu, hope for the best. Sometimes this goes well, but once it got me a plate of rice mixed with what appeared to be chopped pieces of Oscar Meyer wieners. Live and learn.

Mysteries abound for the non-Korean speaker in Koreatown. The other day I drove by a restaurant on Vermont that had a picture of a goat on the sign among the Korean characters. Is this a Korean goat barbecue? I made a mental note and put it on my long list of places to investigate.

The places below are in the more well known, used to English speakers genre. In the future, I'll write up some of the not so typical places, but if you're looking for reliably fantastic Korean food, you can't do much better than these three:

Jeon Ju
Olympic between Vermont and New Hampshire (south side of the street)

Jeon Ju is one of my favorite places to eat of any genre. Their specialty is bi bim bap dol sot or hot pot bi bim bap. The #1, which you will likely be encouraged to order if you are not Korean, is a Kalbi bi bim bap, served in a cast iron hot pot. I love the melding of flavors in bi bim bap and with dol sot, you also get the crispy fried rice that sticks to the side of the pot, which is one of the best single things there is to eat. Add to that great panchan (Korean side dishes served before every meal) which change regularly and huge bowls of peppery soup with big dumplings and rice cakes and you have a truly amazing meal!

Dong Il Jang
8th Street, west of Normandie

I've often wondered whether there is any saturation point for barbecue restaurants in Koreatown. There must be 500, and more seem to open every day. Every time a new strip mall goes up in the neighborhood, I say to myself, I wonder what new and exciting thing will open up, and it turns out to be...yet another Korean barbecue. I've eaten at many barbecues (though there are many more I have yet to visit), but the one I always come back to is Dong Il Jang. The specialty is ross (roast?) gui, thin slices of marbled beef, sauteed on your tableside pan with butter. The marbling dissolves away in seconds and leaves you with pure beefy, fatty goodness. While I love bulgogi, Kalbi and all the marinated meats that are typically part of the Korean barbecue experience, there is something transcendent about the taste of pure, unadorned beef melting in your mouth and filling it with the rich flavor of cow.

After you finish the huge serving, the waitress will use your juicy pan to fry up rice with beef trimmings and your leftover panchan into a deliciously meaty fried rice (not unlike dol sot bi bim bap). This dish may be as good as the barbecue portion of the meal.

For a good, recent review of DIJ with pictures, check out KBlog, a great resource for all things Koreatown.

Beverly Soontofu
Olympic and Vermont, (north side of Olympic, west of Vermont)

Soontofu is a wonderfully spicy Korean soup served with soft tofu and bits of meat or fish. Beverly Soontofu is my favorite soontofu with its fresh tofu and delicious broth. I must admit, however, that Soontofu service has always been sort of a mystery to me. First, it's served with an egg. I always assumed the egg was to drop in the boiling soup cauldron which would immediately cook it, as in egg drop soup. The only problem is the soup, while it is usually bubbling, never seems to be hot enough, so you end up with a sort of slimy goo. I'm not sure if I'm doing it wrong of if slimy goo is the intended outcome. The second thing I don't get is that often, hot water is poured on your leftover scalded rice to make a sort of...soggy rice soup. Again, maybe it's just not to my taste, but I don't get it.

Now, while soontofu is great, my favorite food at Beverly Soontofu is their version of barbecued ika (squid). the slightly charred, medium-sized squid is cooked in traditional red Korean hot sauce. I love every chewy morsel of this stuff.

So, if you're looking for good Korean food, you can count on these three stars. But with nearly endless options, I'm always searching. I still have yet to find a great Korean dumpling house and my next big project, when I get around to it, is to hit the Koreatown Galleria food court, which I've never managed to make it to...and then there's the place with the goats...


Anonymous said...

I'm planning to start on dumpling places sometime soon, too. There's a good one in the Koreatown Plaza food court.

I've been meaning to hit up the Galleria sometime, too, but I haven't gotten around to it yet either.

Thanks for plugging my blog! :)

Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot to say I'd be eager to hear your list of less typical Korean places so I can make sure I try them!

sku said...

Raven, I'll keep doing K-Town reports. I haven't really got it organized yet; I've also been hitting a lot of Korean groceries lately to do home cooking.

Which one is Koreatown Plaza?

Anonymous said...

Koreatown Plaza is at Western & 9th or so. It's about literally three blocks north of the K-town Galleria.

I've been meaning to do a "battle of the Korean markets" blog post sometime. I'll have to get my act together and do it. :)

Bon Vivant said...

My favorite dish at Jeonju is the Jo Gee Gui. I want to try the kimchee jigae next time - hopefully Raven's spice o meter will be really up by then.

Since you are adventurous, the best soondubu that I've had was at a mom and pop place, no English menu, in the same mini-mall as Mil Hama bakery on 6th and Kenmore. Bev Soondubu and the place across the street next door to Jeonju (Soonbudukuku?) pale in comparision

sku said...

Thanks BV. I'll check it out. Does the place on 6th in Kenmore have an English name?