Thanks to chefs like Roy Choi and David Chang, Korean food has been on fire for years now; yet despite all the media attention, many of its essential dishes have yet to go mainstream. Sure you know about kimchi tacos and bibimbop bowls, but food writer and Korean food expert Matt Rodbard is here to tell you that there's a lot more to this flavor-packed cuisine than lettuce wraps and trendy tacos. He’s the author of Koreatown: A Cookbook, a soon-to-be-released book that explores Korean food in America — through interviews, stories and a whole lot of recipes. Here we asked him how to navigate your local Koreatown like a pro — check out his insights and put these essential dishes on your list.
You know all those small plates that land with great ceremony as soon as you sit down at a Korean restaurant? Those are called banchan, and don't be fooled, they're more than just free appetizers. While the literal translation is “side dish,” the plates are meant to be eaten with the main courses — and refilled early and often. Kimchi (see next slide) is a type of banchan, but they also can include seasoned vegetables (spinach, bean sprouts, eggplant), braised tofu, deep-fried squash, a steamed egg and even larger plates like stir-fried glass noodles. Pay attention when they hit the table — a good Korean restaurant can be judged by the quality of their banchan.
Where to try: Soban in Los Angeles and Myung Dong in Houston, TX
Of course you know about kimchi, the iconic fermented food that Korea is best known for. But did you know that kimchi is actually more a verb than a noun? Sure, baechu kimchi (cabbage) is the most widely served at restaurants. It’s red, sometimes spicy, always funky and delicious eaten on its own or with soups, stews or grilled meats. But you will also find kimchis of cubed daikon radish, Kirby cucumbers, green onions, garlic scapes and chives. Sometimes kimchis that are not red at all. Dongchimi is a sour and slightly sweet radish kimchi served in a watery brine.
Bibimbop and kimbop
With Korean food, rice is like the glue that keeps everything together. That is, no meal is served without an individual metal saucer of steamed short-grain rice. But with that, there are a couple dishes that you should seek out where rice is the focus. There is no recipe for bibimbop (translation: “mixed rice”). It’s more a mix a seasoned vegetables, kimchi, meat (bulgogi is great), a gochujang and rice syrup sauce — all topped with a fried or poached egg. Mix it all up and you have one of the most satisfying comfort foods around. It can be served in a steel bowl, or sizzling in a hot stone bowl (called a dolsot). Also look for kimbop, which is kind of like Japanese norimaki rolls but with pickled vegetables and cooked seafood and meat.
Where to try: Choong Hwa Won in Annandale, Virginia, and Jeon Ju in Los Angeles
Doenjang and kimchi jjigae
With long, hard winters and a limited growing season (where pickled and fermented foods are a means of survival), Korea is soup country. And no two soups represent Korea more than doenjang and kimchi jjigae — staples found at many Korean restaurants. Doenjang is a fermented bean paste that is worked into a jjigae (soup) with beef, tofu and clams. Kimchi jjigae is best when the cabbage kimchi is extra funky, which cuts through the pork belly like a razor. Both soups will arrive to the table bubbling, and you will want to eat it right away. But please slow your roll, and make sure to blow on the spoon to avoid a blistery “jjigae mouth.”
Where to try: Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong in New York and Jun Won in Los Angeles
Korean dumplings are underrated. Well, the good ones are at least — beware, not all Korean dumplings are created equally. The pro move is to ask your server if they are made fresh daily. (They are often frozen, and skip those entirely). But if they are made fresh, what you will find is a slightly larger (than, say, shumai or xiao long bao) rice wrapper stuffed with ground pork, tofu and an overpowering amount of garlic and ginger. And make sure you have a large bowl of dipping sauce, a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice vinegar.
Where to try: Pao Jao Dumpling House in Los Angeles and Jang Su Jang in Duluth, Georgia
Drinking Food: Budae jjigae, jwipo, jogaetang
In Korean culture, eating food and drinking alcohol go so hand in hand, it’s often hard to separate the two. The term pojangmacha literally means “covered wagon” and the restaurants are modest affairs — often colorful tented places with stubby plastic stools and Styrofoam dinnerware lining the streets by the dozen in some parts of Seoul. In America the restaurants, called the abbreviated pocha, have come indoors. The food is rich and salty and packed with umami. One favorite is jwipo, a type of fish jerky that is flash grilled and served with peanuts. Jogaetang is a spicy clam soup that helps your sweat out all that soju. But the Korean drinking food that really makes it all better is budae jjigae, or army base stew. It’s basically a kimchi jjigae with all sorts of crazy things thrown in: Spam, American cheese, hot dogs, ramen noodles.
Where to try: Dancen in Chicago and Dwit Gol Mok in Los Angeles
For some, seolleongtang is a love-it-or-leave-it food. The milky broth is painstakingly prepared by boiling beef bones for days and days. You can spot large cauldrons of the stuff bubbling in the back of the restaurant (some claim their burners have been going nonstop since Clinton was in office). But here’s the magical thing about SLT: it arrives to the table bland, and in need of garnishes. Top it with salt (there will be a large bowl at the table) and scallions and eat it with radish kimchi.
Grilled Meats: Kalbi and samgyeopsal
We waited until near the end to talk about Korean barbecue (it’s technically grilling, not slow-and-low cookery, but you get the point). Why? There is so much more to Korean food than barbecue. But pros know to diversify their order. Go with an expensive beef cut like the marinated or un-marinated short ribs called kalbi. Wrap that in lettuce, slather on some ssamjang and all is right in the world. Then go with the less-expensive pork belly (samgyeopsal), which you can dip in salt and sesame oil. Whatever you order, make sure you wash it all down with a round of soju.
Desserts: Hodduk and patbingsu
Korean restaurants don’t typically serve plated desserts after the meal but you can find desserts in Koreatown bakeries and cafes. Common sweets include hodduk, a sort of a cross between a donut and a pancake that is filled with red bean or sweet potato. Patbingsu, like halo halo, is shaved ice topped with wonderful things like fruit, condensed milk, matcha and sometimes chocolate.