Since Koreatown might be the best restaurant neighborhood in L.A., it may be the best restaurant neighborhood in the world. Culling a “best-of” list down to just 10 locations was wildly difficult, given Koreatown's density, global representation and apparent civic commitment to good eatin.' But we persevered, and came up with a collection of restaurants that represent Koreatown's present and future. Use this list as your guide to some of the most interesting food on the planet.
Here's Looking at You
Here's Looking at You, like an increasing number of compelling places to eat in Koreatown, is not a Korean restaurant. It's the brainchild of two Animal veterans — Jonathan Whitener, the former chef de cuisine, and Lien Ta, a former manager — who met while working under Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. If you followed Whitener's inventive cooking at Animal, it seemed inevitable that the chef would eventually split off to headline his own project. The bar program is proof that the most exciting cocktails in L.A. are found in restaurants as often as at bars. Try the ground brisket tartare, crowned with egg yolk, toasted chili powder, shaved turnips and sprigs of watercress, the fried prawns and any of the salads.
3901 W. Sixth St., Koreatown. (213) 568-3573, hereslookingatyoula.com.
Would your doctor approve? She would not. The counter bristles with taps for beers so local that they probably could be delivered on an MTA bus, and you will be tasting several of them before you stagger out the door. Sunday brunch includes Lucky Charms pancakes with Fruity Pebbles whipped cream, and the menu suggests a beer pairing for it. The only healthy thing on the menu is the grilled broccoli, and even that comes with what the menu calls Craftsman 1903 Beer Whiz. Where we come from, Beer Whiz does not generally refer to cheese sauce. There are deep-fried Oreos for dessert, but don't let the whimsy fool you: This crew can cook. Don't forget to try something savory.
532 S. Western Ave., Koreatown. (213) 387-2337, beerbellyla.com.
Angelenos like to think that we know about Thai food, and it's true that our collective knowledge base is greater than the average American's. But even we would do well to venture away from our favorite menu items — and Thai Town. Located on the northern end of Koreatown, Isaan Station specializes in the food of northeast Thailand, which means a lot of grilling, a lot of herbs, and a lot of sour and spicy flavors. Plus, sticky rice with everything. Be sure to try the grilled chicken, which is a house specialty and gives the next restaurant on this list some stiff competition. The beef and pork “jerky” epitomize the funk and the sourness the Isaan region's food is known for, and the papaya salad might be (steady yourself) the best in Los Angeles.
125 N. Western Ave., Koreatown. (323) 498-2451, isaanstation.com.
Pollo a la Brasa
This Peruvian chicken shack is the kind of place you may have thought was zoned out of existence, a kind of glassed-in shed set down on a traffic island and nearly hidden by high drifts of cordwood. The first thing you notice about it is the wood smoke, great billowing clouds that float down Western Avenue and almost magically perfume the chickens, flavored with garlic and black oregano and roasted on a vast, flame-licked apparatus. There is a limited menu here, basically salad and fries and an indifferent preparation of the grilled beef-heart dish anticuchos, but the chicken is enough: well-garlicked, slightly spicy, caramelized and crisp, clearly the marriage of a chicken and a bunch of logs.
764 S. Western Ave., Koreatown. (213) 387-1531.
Genwa is part of a pack of places serving higher-quality beef, such as Soowon, but it 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.
BCD Tofu House
BCD Tofu House has built something of an empire, with two Koreatown locations and many more peppering the outer reaches of Los Angeles and Orange counties. While they serve many Korean staples, their specialty is soon tofu, a spicy stew containing soft tofu and a wide variety of other ingredients — seafood, meat, kimchi, even potato curry. This location is open 24 hours, and anytime is good for a combo, a feast that starts with fried fish and ends with barley tea, with about a dozen tiny plates in between.
3575 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown. (213) 382-6677, bcdtofu.com.
Myung In Dumplings
Los Angeles is heaven for dumpling lovers, and while most of our bounty can be found in the San Gabriel Valley, there’s at least one reason to venture to Koreatown on your next dumpling crawl. Myung In, a small and sparse affair in an Olympic Boulevard strip mall, is one of those places that epitomizes the beauty that can be achieved when an establishment dedicates itself primarily to one foodstuff. Even when you take into account all the Chinese and Japanese dumplings in L.A., Myung In’s various fried, steamed and soup-immersed dumplings rank among the city’s best. There’s spicy soup and fried rice to fill out the offerings, but take your cues from Anthony Bourdain, who is smiling down at you from a huge photograph on the wall — a memento of when he ate here for the second episode of his CNN show, Parts Unknown — and order the large, steamed mandu. The experience is much like eating a doughy, pork-filled softball.
3109 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown. (213) 381-3568.
A gleaming, sterile, mostly takeout joint in a Koreatown mall, Kyochon is an early local outpost of a 1,000-restaurant chain that prepares chicken with the intense precision more commonly associated with brain surgery or microchips. What do you eat at Kyochon? Fried chicken — a whole, tiny chicken chopped into tiny pieces — steeped in a garlicky marinade that supposedly contains 23 ingredients, double-fried to a glassy, thin-skinned crunch, meat rendered of most of its fat. It's similar to what you might find in a good Cantonese restaurant, only juicier. While you wait for your chicken, you are given a bowl of crunchy, sweet-and-sour pickled radish cubes, the classic Korean accompaniment, which is slightly less penitential than it may sound, and as much Coke and Sprite as you can drink. There has been Korean-style chicken in Los Angeles before, but Kyochon may be the most chicken-intensive restaurant on the planet, especially when the sticky Korean pop pauses just long enough to allow the playing of a Kyochon radio commercial, whose clucks and scratchings can be understood in any language.
3833 W. Sixth St., Koreatown. (213) 739-9292, kyochon.us.
Ham Ji Park
This sticky-table dive does a rather spectacular version of pork-neck soup, simmered until the meat has turned almost to jelly and thickened with a brick-red puree of chilies — if you weren't nursing a hair-of-the-dog shot of soju, you might almost mistake it for a Oaxacan mole colorado. The crunchy, sticky grilled pork ribs do justice to the glorious beast. At the end of the meal you'll be covered in sauce and happy about it.
3407 W. Sixth St., Koreatown. (213) 365-8773.
To say there’s a lot of barbecue in Koreatown would be a grand understatement. Enthusiasts will debate the merits of different Korean barbecue establishments with a fervor similar to the way Texas barbecue partisans will duel to the death with Carolina-style lovers. Which is part of what makes Park’s BBQ so remarkable — for the most part, the consensus is that Park’s is the king of Koreatown barbecue. The difference is in the meat, which is meticulously sourced. That upgrade in quality shows even if you don’t opt for the pricy American Wagyu, but even more so if you do. Like the meat, everything here is extremely high-grade, from the banchan to the savory pancakes to the galbi tang, or beef soup, which you can sometimes get at lunch for $6.99 (usually on Wednesdays). For K-pop fans, there’s probably no place in town you’re more likely to run across a beloved pop star, and even if you don’t, the walls are crammed with enough celebrity photos to make up for it. If you have time for only one Korean barbecue outing this year, well, we feel bad for you. But you probably should make it Park’s.
955 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown. (213) 380-1717, parksbbq.com.