In recent years, Los Angeles has been enjoying a resurgence of American-style barbecue with restaurants such as Spring Street Smoke House, Chop Daddy and Horse Thief. But when it comes to barbecue in L.A., Korean barbecue reigns supreme.
There seems to be a restaurant with tabletop grills in every strip mall, food court and plaza in Koreatown. It can be difficult to remember which place with a pig's butt on the sign you most enjoyed. Maybe it was across the street from the place with bull's horns, the star or the crown. We're here to help you navigate the Hangul signage and find the best Korean barbecue in L.A.
10. BBQ Crown
BBQ Crown, originally called Well-Q, quietly opened three years ago in tiny hut in a strip mall. The signage and menu are intentionally sprinkled with Konglish by the American-born owner, Susan Lee. BBQ Crown specializes in smoked duck that's cooked for three to four hours in a $37,000 smoker that's hidden on the restaurant's patio. Boneless, whole duck is trussed and gently smoked. The tender, smoke-infused meat is served in various formats such as tacos and plate specials that come with a sweet and tangy mustard sauce, sambal olek, cold mashed potato salad, multi-grain rice, duck broth, and a carrot and sweet onion salad dressed with a kimchi vinaigrette. Maybe not your first thought when you think of Korean barbecue, but it's worthy of this list. 3076 W. Eighth St., Koreatown; (213) 905-8080; bbqcrown.com.
This is the only all-you-can-eat place to make our list. It made the cut for using higher-quality meats and offering a wider variety of proteins, such as beef belly and octopus, than its competitors. The selection of banchan (the small side dishes that come with Korean meals) tends to be sparse, but that's the tradeoff for unfettered access to Angus and Kobe beef. The same meal would cost at least $100 to $150 in Seoul. It's also one of the few Korean barbecue places that makes an excellent yook-hwe bibimbap (bibimbap topped with Korean steak tartar). Service can be frenetic as the place gets packed, especially on weekends. 3385 W. Eighth St., Koreatown; (213) 385-5665.
8. Soot Bull Jeep
The stark décor, minimalist service style and poor ventilation haven't improved much since Soot Bull Jeep opened in 1983. It's all about charcoal grilling and ssam, or lettuce wraps, at this Koreatown institution. It's the way Korean seniors eat at a church picnic. Meat portions tend to come in generous, hand-cut slabs instead of machine-cut, paper-thin, frozen wisps. The banchan selection is straightforward and old-fashioned, because the real point here is to eat the barbecue as ssam: Take a leaf of lettuce, add a dollop of fermented bean paste, a spoonful of rice, a little shredded green onion, a sliver of grilled garlic and a piece of beef, fold in half and try to eat the whole thing in two bites like my grandmother. 3136 W. Eighth St., Koreatown; (213) 387-3865.
7. Hong's Galbi
Hong's Galbi feels like a family affair, with mom and aunties cooking and serving and babying customers, explaining how to mix their soybean-sprout rice (bean sprouts, stir fried beef, green onions and rice). Gochujang-marinated pork ribs are the namesake specialty of the house. Order any of the combos at Hong Galbi and you can't go wrong. Banchan offerings are basic, but the menu prices and portions are value-oriented. Remember, there's no such thing as free banchan — they're factored into the menu prices. 3132 W. Olympic Blvd., Harvard Heights; (323) 734-2577.
6. Yang San Bak
Barbecue restaurants often try to differentiate themselves with different types of grills. At Yang San Bak, they use the old-fashioned kind, with a moat that's favored for bulgogi. The moat collects the meat juices and fat that's used make kimchi fried rice toward the end of the meal. You'll want to go with a decent size group and order a large-format combo to feast on a dozen or so different cuts of meat, including offal. 3601 W. Sixth St, Koreatown; (213) 365-9689.
6. Sun Ha Jang
Duck is revered here. Every bit of duck meat is put to good use. Fatty slices of duck breast are cooked in a slightly concave barbecue pan so that they essentially cook into duck cracklings. Instead of wrapping the meat in lettuce, the ssam here is served deconstructed as a kind of salad topped with duck cracklings. The fat is reserved for fried rice as an optional finishing course. 4032 W. Olympic Blvd., Arlington Heights; (323) 634-9292.
4. Eight Korean BBQ
Eight Korean BBQ, formerly called Palsaik Samgyeopsal ("eight colors pork belly"), wants you to revel in the health benefits of pork fat. The list of eight major benefits from pork is not merely a marketing tool. My father is an acupuncturist and herbalist, and I've listened to countless stories about the glorious health benefits of pork belly, though perhaps not the same eight reasons cited by Palsaik Samgyeopsal's marketing team. The eight flavors aren't all equally good, but each is worth trying at least once as a kind of pork-belly tasting menu. This is one of the few Korean barbecue restaurants that ventures away from the ubiquitous soy sauce or gochujang (fermented chili paste) marinades. Thinly sliced rounds of pickled mu (a Korean daikon radish), ggaenip (perilla leaves) and lettuce are provided for ssam. 863 S. Western Ave., Koreatown; (213) 365-1750.
3. Byul Gobchang
Byul Gobchang specializes in intestines, specifically cow intestines, serving the best quality, cleanest-tasting versions in Koreatown. Order their intestine combination and wash it down with flavored soju or makgeolli (an alcoholic beverage made with rice or wheat). The servers tend to be older ajummas who adhere to old-school, brisk service. You'll swear you're in a back alley restaurant in Seoul. 3819 W. Sixth St., Koreatown; (213) 739-0321.
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2. Soowon Galbi
It's rare to find a Korean barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles that also does non-barbecue dishes well. The overall consistency of all the items on Sowoon Galbi's menu, the banchan's regional style (Jeolla-do) and the excellent service all make for a full-spectrum dining experience. It's one of the very few barbecue places where we would actually order dishes such as dolsot bibimbap and pajun. As for the barbecue cuts themselves, we recommend the unseasoned short ribs and sliced ribeye. 856 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown; (213) 365-9292.
Genwa is part of a pack of places that serves higher-quality beef, such as Soowon, but breaks ahead of them with its staggering array of consistently good banchan, which comes in 20 or so varieties, many of them rarely served at standard=issue Korean restaurants. Korean cuisine, even at a barbecue restaurant, is more than just grilled meat. Kot sal (boneless short ribs) and tongue come highly recommended. Take a small piece of grilled meat, a dollop of banchan and relish with a spoonful of rice. 5115 Wilshire Blvd., Hancock Park; (323) 549-0760.