Bibimbap was 2003's favorite Dish of the Future, an amalgam of meat, various vegetables and egg tossed together with hot rice and Korean chile paste, an infinitely adaptable formula killed by venal entrepreneurs, both in Los Angeles and in Seoul, who saw it as a way to repurpose their salad bars. You wouldn't think it would be possible to ruin bibimbap, but you would be wrong.
But while you may not see bibimbap drive-thrus at the moment, devotees soldiered on, both at specialist restaurants like Jeon Ju in Koreatown, which continues to serve bibimbap in its most traditional form, and at 24-hour places like the dive Hodori and BCD Tofu House, where the dish continues to have a place in the large, thriving pantheon of Korean drunk food. Soothing rice and egg, given an edge with the sharpness of gochujang, and the healthy rush of weird dried brackens – what could satisfy a trembly gut better? And then the fad for dolsot bibimbap hit: basically the same thing, but served in a superheated stone pot that seared the outer layer of the rice into scorched, sesame-oil-scented crustlets as crunchy as Pringles. Nature's perfect food!
Still, even I am finding it hard to explain why the new twist on dolsot bibimbap at Cham, a self-proclaimed Korean bistro in Pasadena, is making me so happy. Cham is about as far from a 4 a.m. dive as you can get – it's basically a streamlined quick-meal place in an office district, like Chego as imagined by a corporate consultant instead of a demented kitchen genius. The menu focuses on its version of ssam, which involves mounds of grilled meat or tofu, sesame noodles, carefully meted out ggaenip leaves and pickles, and a stack of butter-lettuce leaves in which to wrap it all into little Korean tacos. It's all very tasty, very clean, and the customers never have to acknowledge the existence of kimchi.
Cham's version of dolsot bibimbap comes out sizzling loudly in a oven-hot cast-iron skillet like a truckstop breakfast special, a potholder affixed neatly to the handle, a smoking chicken egg dominating the middle of the pan as it does in every skillet meal ever served. Is it the best bibimbap in town? It's tasty enough, but it probably wouldn't rank among the best few dozen. Still – the idea of a shotgun marriage between North Jeolla Province and the Cracker Barrel is kind of cool. And if you avoid messing with it too much, if you squirt the chile paste in at the right time, it does indeed form a solid, reputable crust.
Cham Korean Bistro: 851 Cordova St., Pasadena; (626) 792-2474.