See Also: A Google map for all 60 of the Korean dishes Jonathan Gold says every Angeleno should know, read "5 Koreatown Restaurants Open 24 Hours: Hangover Soup," learn about "5 Koreatown Beer Joints: Hite Requirement," or just look at more of Anne Fishbein's beautiful Koreatown food photography.
I had been writing about the restaurants for ages, but when I assembled the Weekly's first Koreatown guide in 2004, the sheer size and vitality of the scene were even then astonishing. The area already seemed to have more late-night restaurants than the rest of the city put together, a network of nightclubs that rivaled Hollywood's, and a hard-drinking restaurant culture whose most enthusiastic participants visited not just one eating place per evening but often three or four: an anju bar for a soju and a snack; a restaurant for dinner; a norebang (karaoke bar) or billiards hall or dance club where there is also a snack or two; and then perhaps one of the 24-hour places for a pot of soup or a greasy seafood pancake to take some of the edge off the alcohol.
To know Koreatown meant exploring not just one of these kinds of places, but all of them; not just curiosity but endurance.
Koreatown, which occupies an expanding area between Hancock Park and downtown, may well be the most vibrant expat enclave anywhere in the world, a neighborhood of Korean driving ranges and Korean herbalists, karaoke rooms and supermarkets, movie complexes and modern shopping malls that could have been plucked straight out of Seoul.
In the years since then, of course, Korea established itself at the center of Asia's culture. When teenagers swoon over musicians, they are as likely to be K-pop stars like 2PM or Girls Generation as they are Rihanna or Justin Bieber, and projects like Seoul's river restoration, which turned a downtown superhighway back into the river on whose bed it was originally constructed, are the envy of city planners around the world.
I used to joke that Koreatown was basically a midsized Korean city whose culinary specialties were soondubu and laterally cut short ribs. Now, it is clear, Koreatown is functionally a distant district of Seoul -- in capital as well as in culture, in both commerce and cuisine.
There are some things you should know about dining in the less-fancy sorts of Korean restaurants, even if you're an expert in this sort of thing. The idea of service tends to be different in Korean restaurants from what it is even in other Asian restaurants: The waiters and waitresses are there to take your order, bring you food and fetch the check, period. There will be no discussion of the vegetables in season, or banter about whether the mackerel is better than the cod. The best small restaurants specialize in one or two specialties, and you will be expected to order one of them. Filtered ice water, or perhaps dilute barley tea, are perfectly acceptable as beverages everywhere but bars, and nobody will ever try to upsell you to beer or soju. (You can usually ask to have a water pitcher left on your table.) Banchan, the little dishes of marinated vegetables, kimchi and other things that accompany your meal, will be refilled as many times as you wish, although it is considered poor form to overdo it on lavish freebies like marinated crab or fried fish. You will often find an electronic call button affixed to the table. Do not be shy about using it when you need the check or another round of raspberry wine -- you will feel obnoxious, but it is the protocol.
I arbitrarily capped the number of dishes in this guide at 60, but it is clear that the number could just as well be 160 -- the more I learn about Korean cooking in Los Angeles, the less I feel I know. The basic unit of consumption may still be all-you-can-eat barbecue meals, a phenomenon not covered in depth here, but the energy is clearly elsewhere. And I am already mourning the omission of Ham Hung's naengmyun with skate, Young Dong's sullongtong with tongue, Nakzi Village's stir-fried octopus, chicken wings at the Prince, the spicy fried rice made from the nuclear-hardened remains of Ttu Rak's galbi jjim -- and, really, any serious pancake. Do not hesitate to tell us about your favorite bindaedduk.
In a Japanese shabu-shabu restaurant, you swish bits of meat and vegetables one by one through a pot of simmering broth, noting how each is altered by its cooking, and how each contributes to the harmonious whole. Jing-gee Skhan, named after noted carnivore Genghis Khan, is the Korean equivalent. And, at least as performed at Seoul Garden, its local temple, it seems to be more communal in its approach. There is one kind of meat involved, either chicken, turkey or rosy, absolutely standard slices of beef loin, arranged like peony petals on a platter, and the vegetables come in the form of an enormous salad of herbs, chopped greens and slivered scallions, supplemented with a single sliced mushroom and a few cubes of tofu. Your first sacrifice to the burbling pot is exactly the same as your last, each chopstickful of boiled meat and herbs you fish out of the pot identical. What you experience is the distillation of humble ingredients into something rather powerful, so that by the time the waitress comes by with a plate of fresh udon noodles to cook in what's left of the broth, then finishes by stirring in rice and egg to thicken it into a porridge, what you are left with is something muscular and profound. Does this say something about the character of the Korean people? I would like to think it does. 1833 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 386-8477.
Imagine a Korean kid's lunch box -- meat, rice, vegetables, egg and pickles packed into a flat, metal container. Then imagine the same box shaken until its contents rearrange into a crude bibimbap -- delicious. This may be the only standard restaurant dish anywhere in the world whose origin points to a bored 6-year-old on a playground. You can find a very good dosirak at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, a new barbecue place in the Chapman Plaza owned by the wrestler-turned-movie comedian Kang Ho Dong -- think of him as The Rock crossed with Rob Schneider. It's an appetizer and an upper-body workout rolled into one. 3465 W. Sixth St.; (213) 384-9678.
Grand Prix pizza
Have you ever seen the Grand Prix pizza at Mr. Pizza Factory? Because even within the world of cross-cultural cuisine, the Grand Prix is a remarkable object, a weighty, doughy construction that can so warp your perceptions of what a pizza might be that it threatens to dent the space-time continuum. Imagine a pie whose geography is neatly bisected, one half resembling a deconstructed shrimp cocktail, the other a plate of nachos. Rising at the edge is a tawny ridge of browned, sweetened, raisin-speckled dough. After you eat the nacho pizza and the shrimp-cocktail pizza, you are supposed to break off pieces of this scone crust and dip them in strawberry jam for dessert. Mr. Pizza Factory is my hero. 3881 Wilshire Blvd.; (213) 738-0077.
If you are fond of litigation, you should probably turn the page. Because of all the hazards inherent in Korean gastronomy -- stray coals, red-hot stones and exploding clams among them -- there may be no foodstuff quite so dangerous as the chewy, sizzling street-food staple called hotteok, as found at Koo's Sweet Rice Pancake Hotteok Cart. You will burn your fingers on the pancake, that's a given; blister your lips; possibly scorch your tongue. But if you've never experienced hotteok, nothing can possibly prepare you for the flood of molten brown sugar from its heart, a delicious, cinnamon-scented goo that shares rather too many characteristics with napalm. Am I imagining things, or is that pure evil behind that griddle? Koo's, in the parking lot behind California Market, 4317 Beverly Blvd.
Slices of unseasoned duck breast ooze and shrink and sear on a thick, cast-iron griddle at Sun Ha Jang; you snatch them off the heat and fold them into a salad of lettuce and sliced leeks. When a waitress plugs the drain with a hank of cabbage kimchi, it is time to cook the "roast duck": the parts of the bird that don't happen to come from the breast, which you slowly render into duck cracklings. The duck is eaten. The fat boils. A bowl of cooked rice is upended onto the griddle with herbs and your leftover kimchi; it soon will become the richest fried rice of your life. 4032 W. Olympic Blvd.; (323) 634-9292.
School Food Blooming Roll is a brightly lit café a few steps from the CGV triplex -- the first local outpost of a Seoul-based chain. It's very cute, very Hello Kitty, with flat screens blaring K-pop videos and a largely pubescent crowd. The conceit here is, as the restaurant's name implies, school food -- the kinds of things you might have found in your junior high school cafeteria if you had been raised in Korea, circa 2005: gooey, fire-hot ddukbokki with cheese; chicken noodle soup; dumplings; even blood sausage, which probably plays better in Korea than it might in Encino. Foremost among the nostalgic dishes here is the huge assortment of kimbap, which are kind of like Japanese maki and kind of not: tightly wrapped sushi rolls stuffed with things like beef teriyaki, crunchy anchovies, bacon with garlic, and the inevitable Spam and egg. Do Korean kids really eat tar-black squid ink kimbap for lunch? I'll trade you for your peanut butter sandwich ... 621 S. Western Ave.; (213) 380-3663.
Before K-pop, before pirate bars, before indoor driving ranges, there were the private rooms and tuck 'n' roll booths of Dong Il Jang, the cornerstone of modern Koreatown. And at Dong Il Jang was roast gui, thickish slices of well-marbled beef, sizzled in butter in a big, tabletop skillet. The trick is grabbing the beef off the hot metal after it has begun to caramelize but before all the juices have cooked out of it -- which is easy enough to manage even if a waitress doesn't happen to be hovering -- and lubricating it with a bit of sesame oil and salt. Roast gui is technically barbecue, I guess, but it feels more genteel somehow, more old-fashioned than atavistic, like the Korean equivalent of steak Diane. 3455 W. Eighth St.; (213) 383-5757.
Although you might not guess it from the tides of Crown Royal surging down Wilshire on weekend nights, Koreans tend to be as obsessed with health culture as any Westside yogini, and Koreatown is laced with spas and herbalists and wellness centers, sometimes right next door to the places selling all-you-can-eat pork. And there is probably nothing in the Korean repertory healthier than pumpkin porridge with glutinous rice dumplings: five minutes of satori in a bowl. Bon Juk, the local outlet of a Seoul-based chain, is the fanciest porridge parlor in Koreatown, absolutely without harsh edges, and the pumpkin porridge is the star of the menu, sweet, gentle and utterly calming. You can also get your porridge with kimchi and octopus, but it somehow seems beside the point. 3551 Wilshire Blvd.; (213) 380-2248.