Los Angeles' Koreatown probably doesn't need another BBQ place — well, at least not another Korean one. There seems to be a restaurant with tabletop grills in every plaza, strip mall and food court, cannibalizing another one's business two doors down or across the street. Let's be blunt: Entrepreneurial first-generation Koreans are noted more for their work ethic and competitive streak than for their originality. Still, we love Korean BBQ and can't complain about having so many specialty restaurants to choose from. Turn the page for our picks for the 10 best Korean BBQ places in town.
This is the only AYCE place — that's all-you-can-eat — to make our list. It made the cut for using higher-quality meats and offering a more interesting variety of proteins, such as beef belly and octopus, than its competitors. Service can be slow and 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 in Seoul. It's also one of the few Korean BBQ places, AYCE or otherwise, that makes an excellent yook-hwe bibimbap (bibimbap topped with Korean steak tartar). 3385 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles; (213) 385-5665.
9. Soot Bull Jeep:
The stark décor and minimalist service style haven't changed much since Soot Bull Jeep opened in 1983. It's all about charcoal grilling and ssam, or lettuce wraps, at this Koreatown institution. 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 BBQ as ssam: Take a leaf of lettuce, add a dollop of 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., Los Angeles; (213) 387-3865.
8. Honey Pig:
Domed grills are designed to collect meat juices from bulgogi or rendered duck or pork fat. Since Honey Pig specializes in, well, pig, not a drop of pork fat is wasted. Hunks of samgyeopsal (pork belly) are cooked in the center of the dome and eaten as ssam, while a moat of kimchi and bean sprouts along the perimeter of the grill cooks in rendered pork fat. Pace yourself, because the pickled vegetables are being prepped for an elaborate kimchi fried rice. Just when you think you can't manage another bite, the waitress will unceremoniously dump large bowls of lettuce and rice onto your grill to be mixed with charred bits of pork belly, kimchi, bean sprouts and, of course, lots of pork fat. 3400 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles; (213) 380-0256.
Turn the page for #7, etc…
7. Dong Il Jang:
This place is a time capsule of Koreatown circa 1980. We confess to choosing it for our Top 10 list for nostalgic reasons: It was one of the first large Korean restaurants to open in L.A. All the reviews referring to “OG” or “old-school” Korean BBQ actually should refer to the roast gui, a specialty of the house and not the age of the restaurant. Roast gui is unmarinated, unseasoned rib-eye that's cut in slices about a quarter-inch thick; it used to be the preferred high-end cut, along with tong galbi, before the trend started toward thinly sliced, highly marbled cuts. Roast gui tends to become dry and tough with overcooking, so don't forget to place cooked pieces on top of the onion set in the center of the grill. That's what it's there for, a kind of holding zone to keep the meat moist and warm. After you're done, order the kimchi fried rice, which will be cooked on the same grill as the roast gui. 3455 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles; (213) 383-5757.
6. Dha Rae Ok:
It's more famous for its clay-pot duck casserole than its duck BBQ, but the duck skewers (kochi) here shouldn't be overlooked. The owners, Chung Mi Rae and Kim Gil Rae, travel to Korea once a year to keep up with new trends. Their setup here shows that, just when we think we've seen every imaginable contraption for grilling Korean BBQ, a new one is invented: The duck skewers are cooked first on rotating grills fueled with a combination of propane and charcoal, then finished on stainless steel flat-tops to crisp the skin. The results are charred bits of duck meat with a cap of duck crackling. 1108 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 733-2474.
5. Sun Ha Jang:
This is the duck version of Honey Pig. Fatty slices of duck are cooked in a slightly concave BBQ pan so that they essentially fry 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., Los Angeles; (323) 634-9292.
Turn the page for #4, etc…
Koreans don't wallow in animal fat carelessly — we believe it has health benefits. The list of “8 major benefits from Pork” on Palsaik Samgyeopsal's menu is not merely a marketing tool. My father is an acupuncturist and herbalist. 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. Thinly sliced rounds of pickled mu (a Korean daikon radish), ggaenip and lettuce are provided for ssam. 863 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 365-1750.
Byul Gobchang specializes in intestines, specifically cow intestines, serving the best quality, cleanest-tasting versions in Koreatown. Order its intestine combination and wash it down with flavored soju. Though we're not fans of soju cocktails in general, the infused ones here are pretty good. 3819 W. Sixth St., Los Angeles; (213) 739-0321.
2. Soowon Galbi:
The overall consistency of all the items on their menu, the banchan's regional style (Jeolla-do) and the excellent service all make for a total dining experience. It's one of the very few BBQ places where we would actually order non-BBQ items such as dolsot bibimbap and pajun. As for the bbq cuts, we recommend the unseasoned shortribs and sliced ribeye. 856 S Vermont Ave. Ste C., Los Angeles, CA 90005, (213) 365-9292.
Turn the page for our #1 pick…
Genwa is part of a pack of places that serve higher quality beef, such as Soowon or Park's, but breaks ahead with its staggering array of consistently good banchan, which comes in 20 or so varieties. Korean cuisine and eating, even at a BBQ restaurant, is more than just grilled meat. Kot sal (boneless short ribs) and tongue are especially recommended. Take a small piece of grilled meat, a dollop of banchan and relish with a spoonful of rice. 5115 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036, (323) 549-0760.
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