If you've ever driven through the middle of Los Angeles, you know that the city has a huge Korean population. In fact, L.A. has the largest Korean population outside of Korea, itself, and Koreatown is like a min-Seoul. There are hundreds of Korean-owned restaurants, bars, clubs, spas, cafÃ©s and "noraebang" (private karaoke rooms) -- many of them with signs only written in Hangeul (the Korean language).
What you may not know is that L.A. is also home to some of the best Korean restaurants in the world, even rivaling those in the cities and towns of the original Asian peninsula.
Being a Korean-American living in L.A., everyone asks me what's the best place to eat here. There's no easy answer to that question, but I will let you in on a little secret. Most eateries don't try to be "the best Korean restaurant." Actually, restaurants will excel in making their specialty -- be it tofu hot pot or cook-your-own barbeque, individual joints will specialize in one dish (so much so that you may find a very limited menu at some places).
Let me take you on an inside tour by introducing you to five traditional dishes. Grab your chopsticks and get ready to chow down.
Galbi (Beef Short Rib)
The king of all Korean restaurant dishes, the Korean barbeque, specifically marinated beef short rib, was born in restaurants in Seoul. It's ironic that this is one of the best known of the country's cuisines, since beef is not a major staple in the Korean diet. Regardless, we all can benefit from this relatively recent addition to the culinary landscape and even indulge in all-you-can eat fare that leaves you overly sated and perfumed with the smoky goodness of having cooked all that meat on a tabletop grill with your friends. The most popular of the unlimited meat joints is Manna (3377 W Olympic Blvd; tel. 323/733-8516), which can have waits over an hour on weekends. My favorite, however, is a little-known place called L.A. Family House (3077 W. 8th Street; tel. 213/386-7890), located on the NE corner of 8th and Berendo, whose sign is only in Korean (look for the tiny letters that read "Korean BBQ").
Soon Dubu (Tofu Hot Pot)
This is the ultimate in down-home comfort food -- a boiling hot pot of silky tofu in a lovely broth. Some places will have only the soon dubu on their menu. You just get to choose what's inside. BCD Tofu House (3575 Wilshire Blvd; tel. 213/382-6677 has a more extensive menu, but their signature dish is what brings in the late-night crowds. They're open 24/7 and have a handful of locations throughout the Southern California area. Much less glamorous, but perhaps more delicious is tofu soup at Beverly Soon Dubu (2717 W Olympic Blvd #108; tel. 213/380-1113). Don't look for fancy dÃ©cor or fabulous service there, but you can be guaranteed an excellent bowl of steaming goodness.
Bibimbap (Mixed Rice Bowl)
If you've never tried Korean cuisine before, bibimbap may be the safest (and one of the most delicious) dishes to start your culinary adventure. It's rice with a variety of seasoned vegetables, a little bit of meat and a dollop of chile paste. Usually served cold or in a hot stone pot (called "dolsot bibimbap"), it's a healthy choice even for vegetarians (just ask them to leave out the beef). One of the best places to try the dish is Kobawoo House (698 S. Vermont Ave #109; tel. 213/389-7300), a place that's an excellent introduction to Korean food, in general, and known for their dweji bossam (sliced pork belly wrapped with napa cabbage). Those on a budget can also get a surprisingly good bibimbap at Gamja Bawi (928 S. Western Ave #129; tel. 213/387-5581) in the basement-level food court of the Koreatown Plaza.
Mandu are the Korean versions of dumplings imported from China. They're usually stuffed with pork and/or vegetables and steamed, boiled or fried. Koreans make some with gimchi, too, of course. If you just want a cheap, quick meal, try Mandu Chon (450 S Western Ave; tel. 213/382-9444) a tiny joint inside the California Market. With just slightly more ambiance and a different menu is Myung Dong Kyoja (3630 Wilshire Blvd; tel. 213/385-7789) which has been imported from its original location in the Myungdong area of Seoul.
Kal Gooksu (Handmade "Knife" Noodles)
Kal gooksu, are handmade noodles that are cut with a knife (hence the name) and then served in a steaming broth, usually made from chicken or dried anchovies. A filling dish, great for the chillier winters, it's comfort food at its best. One of the best places to get this dish is Ma Dang Gook Su (869 S Western Ave #1; tel. 213/487-6008), a cozy little place tucked in a mini-mall that specializes in all things noodle. (A little note, it's a cash-only joint, so hit the ATM before you stop by). Another place that specializes in kal gooksu is Olympic Noodle (4008 W Olympic Blvd; tel. 323/931-0007), whose broth is a little less thick, but just as tasty.
Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee is the author of Frommer's South Korea. Her latest cookbook, Quick and Easy Korean Cooking, is now available worldwide. For an extra Korean food fix, check out her blog at www.eatingkorean.com.
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