You may think there's nothing in Koreatown but barbecue. If you've found your comfort zone in the sort of small-plates, New American restaurants everyone's already talking about, you might think that going to unfamiliar Korean restaurants sounds dicey. You assume no one will understand you, that you won't be able to read the menu.
It's time to get over your fear. Sure, there are places where you'll see nothing but Hangul, the Korean writing system. But most menus have English translations, even if limited. And it's easy to order. All you have to do is choose a main dish, then sit back and watch the parade of side dishes, called banchan, that come automatically. You'll get kimchi for sure and many other things, depending upon the largesse of the restaurant.
As for that main dish, there is more – much more – to eat in Koreatown than barbecue. Here's a starter list of what you should try, apart from the usual bulgogi and galbi, as well as a great place to get each dish. Our suggested dishes aren't scarily unusual. They even include pasta and sushi – Korean-style, of course.
A witch's boiling cauldron couldn't be any hotter than Jeon Ju Restaurant's sizzling black stone pots of the rice dish bibimbap. Leave your metal spoon in the pot too long and it will burn any portion of your face that it touches. But do let the rice sit undisturbed if you want a deliciously crunchy crust below the steaming goodies on top. Dol sot (meaning stone pot) bibimbap is this restaurant's specialty. Four of the eight variations are packed with healthy ingredients, including one with tofu, another with seven kinds of vegetables, and a couple with chestnuts, gingko nuts, jujubes (red dates) and beans, one of them cooked with butter. Meat lovers can choose between galbi (rib meat) or bulgogi (thin sliced beef) combined with lots of vegetables and an egg that cooks in the mixture. You toss all this with spicy gochujang-based sauce from a squeeze bottle on the table. And there's more – a generous assortment of banchan, plus soup, which makes this one of the best $10 lunches in town. Jeon Ju Restaurant, 2716 W. Olympic Blvd., #101, Koreatown. (213) 386-5678.
9. Roast Gui
You've probably eaten lots of Korean barbecue, meaning meat that has been soaked in a sweet, soy sauce marinade. But Koreans go to Dong Il Jang for something else – roast gui. This is lean, unseasoned rib-eye cut into thin, rosy slices, cooked on a grill greased with butter and then dipped in a dish of sesame oil, salt and pepper. The meat has to be good, because there's nothing to hide any cheaper quality. When you've eaten the last of it, what some consider the best part of the meal is still to come. The server brings bowls of rice and kimchi mixed with meat and cooks them together on the grill in front of you. You also get a bowl of clear beef broth, some of which you can spoon into your bowl of kimchi rice to make it even tastier. More than 30 years old, Dong Il Jang is a handsome place where you can savor Korean atmosphere along with the food, even sitting on the floor at low tables if you want to be totally traditional. Dong Il Jang, 3455 W. Eighth St., Koreatown. (213) 383-5757.
8. Rice Rolls
You'd probably call the adorable, nori-wrapped rolls at School Food Blooming Roll sushi, but that's Japanese, and these are Korean. Adorable is the right word, though, because these are probably the tiniest rolls you'll ever see. You could eat 20 at a sitting and still want more. Especially because the fillings are so tempting – like stir-fried garlic and bacon, teriyaki beef, smelt roe with daikon sprouts and teriyaki squid tucked inside rice dark with squid ink. And how could you resist Spam rolls covered with egg and mozzarella cheese? The vibe here is young, with customers all the way from teenagers with skateboards and college kids to older folks hungry for the snack foods they remember from school days in Korea. The rice rolls head the menu, but there's much more, including the Korean blood sausage soondae, rice cakes with spicy carbonara sauce and lots of variations on fried rice, all at prices that fit a student's budget. School Food Blooming Roll, 621 S. Western Ave., #301 (in Madang Plaza), Koreatown. (213) 380-3663.
7. Abalone and Rice Porridge
On first glance, Mountain Café seems so boring. The same dish is on practically every table, as if there were nothing else on the menu. But if you knew how good that dish is, it would be on your table, too. It's abalone and rice porridge, so popular that it's No. 1 on the menu posted on the wall. People cram into this tiny spot hoping to get one of very few tables so they can eat it. Forget Chinese or Thai rice porridges. This is more like risotto, very thick and unctuously soft yet still fluid, with a hint of sesame oil. A raw egg yolk gleams in the center like a small orange sun. Stir it immediately into the porridge, and then spoon up the velvety grains. The small chunks of abalone almost seem like an afterthought, because this dish is about texture. It's as easy to eat as baby food – and you might spot a Korean mom spooning it into her baby's mouth. Mountain Café is almost hidden in a corner mall, so look for the word “Mountain” on the front window. Everything else is in Korean, including the name of the restaurant and its two specialties – in addition to the porridge, there's a chicken, rice and ginseng soup called samgyetang. Mountain Café, 3064 W. Eighth St., Koreatown. (213) 487-7615.
6. Army Stew
Anything you can think of is in this hodgepodge of a stew – Spam, hot dogs, ground meat, ramen, rice cakes, macaroni, kimchi, carrots, green squash, potato, mushrooms, green onions, garlic cloves, sliced jalapeños and sprigs of ssukgat (crown daisy). This odd mixture goes back to the Korean War, when a famished populace scavenged food scraps from American military bases and boiled them with anything else they could find to make a one-pot survival dish. Rather than be forgotten in better times, the dish took on a life of its own. Today's versions – called budae-jjigae in Korean – vary from place to place, just like in the old days. The rendition at Chunju Han-il Kwan is spicy and richly flavored, with a large assortment of side dishes and rice, making it much more lavish than meager wartime fare. On the English menu, it's called “spicy mixed casserole with Spam, sausage and noodles.” It's a big dish to share with friends, and you'll all have fun poking through the boiling red broth to see what you'll pull out next. Chunju Han-il Kwan, 3450 W. Sixth St., Koreatown. (213) 480-1799.
5. Spicy Rice Cakes
A homely little restaurant in Koreatown, Spoon & Chopsticks serves killer spicy rice cakes, the most devastating of which is No. 30, “hot bomb.” You get a molten red mass of tubular rice cakes, ramen noodles, fish cake, hardboiled egg and cabbage that is hot enough to explode in your mouth and guaranteed to make you polish off the pitcher of cold water on your table. The only accompaniments are fish cake soup and crisp radish pickles, which are tasty but useless in combating heat this intense. (Fortunately, a Korean icy dessert place is only a few steps away.) Other rice cakes on the menu are spicy but not this hot. There's a combo that includes rice cakes, tempura rolls and dumplings, and another version with cheese. Chewy and filling, rice cakes (tteokbokki) are a popular Korean snack. At Spoon & Chopsticks, you can even have them for breakfast. The restaurant used to be a night place, open until 4 a.m. That's been changed. The new hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Spoon & Chopsticks, 3417 W. Sixth St., Koreatown. (213) 389-5422.
4. Old-School Lunch Box
Back in the day, kids in Korea took lunch to school in metal boxes, the contents of which reflected the economic status of their families (meat in some, only kimchi and rice in others). This custom has mostly died out, but you can still get the lunch box, and right here in Los Angeles. Star King BBQ in Koreatown puts rice, stir-fried kimchi, a fried egg and a sprinkling of crushedm dried seaweed into the same sort of box as is used in Korea. There's no meat, which makes it affordable for students, if any hang out in Korean barbecue places these days, and no sauce, because the kimchi provides plenty of flavor. The closed box gets a good shake at the table, turning the contents into what looks like fried rice. Then it's opened and placed on the tabletop grill to give the rice an appetizing, crisp crust. Lunchables this isn't – but schoolkid or not, it's pretty darned good. Star King BBQ, 3807 Wilshire Blvd., #120, Koreatown. (213) 384-5464.
3. Spicy Crab Soup
If you don't read Hangul, you'll have to find Won Jo Kokerang Agurang by looking for the orange neon crab in the window. But while the signage outside is only in Korean, the menu is in English, too – and really, all you need to know is that you should order crab. The spicy soup may seem pricey at $59, but it's enough for four. Plus, you get so many banchan, including hearty dishes such as corn and cheese on a sizzling platter and octopus with spicy sauce, that no one will go away hungry. These small dishes cluster around an enormous pot of red broth, soybean sprouts and crab, placed on a portable burner to keep it hot to the last drop. The little brownish nuggets that you'll spoon up are sea squirts, best left to addicts of odd food. Sure, the soup is spicy, but the heat level will be adjusted to whatever you can tolerate. Your server will cut apart and crack the crab, so there's nothing for you to do but put on the red apron she gives you and slurp away. Won Jo Kokerang Agurang, 533-C S. Western Ave., Koreatown. (213) 382-3823.
2. Original Dumpling Soup
Seriously in need of comfort food? Get the “original dumpling soup” at All Family Restaurant. You'll feel so much better as you spoon up the light beef bone broth and bite into big, tender, freshly made dumplings filled with finely ground beef and vegetables. Bits of egg float in the broth, and seaweed strands are scattered over the top. It's delicate and delicious, and easy on the tenderest of stomachs because there isn't a trace of hot chile. All Family is all about dough, both dumplings and hand-cut noodles. The dumplings come steamed, fried or boiled, filled with beef and vegetables or kimchi. You can watch them being made, not in the kitchen but at a table in the restaurant, where your waitress may set to work during a spare moment. And you can buy frozen dumplings to go in packs of 30 for $15. The wall menu is in Korean only, but your placemat is also a menu in both English and Korean, so that you'll know exactly what to order. All Family Restaurant, 1032 Crenshaw Blvd., #B, Arlington Heights. (323) 935-2724.
1. Pork Spare Ribs
Those adorable piglets on the counter at Hamjipark on Pico Boulevard aren't there to amuse kiddies but to let you know that this restaurant specializes in pork. What you must eat here is pork spare ribs – yep, that's what they're called, no need to “sell” them with artsy menu verbiage. They arrive darkly browned and glistening, a tad spicy and a tad sweet, sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with onions underneath. They're definitely finger food, although you're given tongs to pick them up and shears with which to cut off the flap of meat attached to each slim rib. You get a big plate of green salad with your order, and banchan too. Still hungry? Pork neck stew with potato is another big seller here. Or you might try kimchi spicy stew with tofu and, naturally, pork. You can get these same dishes at Hamjipark on Sixth Street, but this is the original, located where it's much easier to park. Hamjipark (Pico), 4135 W. Pico Blvd., Arlington Heights. (323) 733-8333. Also, 3407 W. Sixth St., #101-C, Koreatown. (213) 365-8773.
See also: Patbingsoo: Koreatown's Must-Try Dessert