99 Essential Restaurants 2014

Koreatown

Beverly Soon Tofu

photo by Amy Scattergood

Monica Lee’s tofu shop, Beverly Soon Tofu, has been open for a long time — longer than Koreatown’s culinary renaissance, longer than K-pop, probably longer than you’ve been eating bibimbap or, depending on your age, solid food of any kind. In fact, Lee has been serving soon tofu since 1986, originally in her first shop on Beverly Boulevard (hence the name), and for the last 26 years on Olympic in Koreatown. Soon tofu is soft tofu, and Lee serves hers in many iterations, loaded into bubbling cauldrons, in dangerous-looking spicy broth, with clams and oysters, with kimchi or meats, or studded with vegetables and cod roe. The tofu soup comes to your table literally bubbling, in black metal pots that could have been lifted from the set of a Harry Potter film. In fact, the whole restaurant seems like a witch’s hut, with long, communal tables built from thick wooden planks and thatched eves supported by wooden poles on the walls — not to mention all those spitting cauldrons. Once you get past the awesome spectacle of the tofu, you should remember that the galbi is excellent, as is the stone-plate bibimbap, which happily sizzles in its medieval-looking receptacle. If you have set-designer friends, bring them with you — they’ll love the decor, and you’ll probably need help eating all that food.

-- Amy Scattergood

The Corner Place

photo by Danny Liao

You may wonder why this restaurant is called the Corner Place, because it isn’t on a corner; it’s smack in the middle of a narrow strip mall, flanked by a Latino market and a panadería. Barbecue lovers don’t let that stop them — big servings of delicious barbecue have won the casual Korean eatery a steadfast following. Get the galbi (boneless beef short ribs) or bulgogi (thin-sliced beef tenderloin). Both are marinated to perfection rather than overloaded with soy sauce and sugar. Although the meat comes with plenty of banchan, you should definitely order the famous cold noodle soup, dong chi mi gook su, or, as the Corner Place calls it simply, “cold noodle in soup.” The slim, slippery noodles float in light clear broth along with sliced green onion, cucumber and jalapeños. The broth is based on North Korean kimchi, but the flavor is delicate and slightly sweet, not strong like most kimchi. Don’t ask for any more details because the recipe is secret.

-- Barbara Hansen

Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong

photo by Anne Fishbein

Beer bars Gaam and Toe Bang always draw crowds to Koreatown’s Chapman Plaza, but the spot with the most daunting lines is Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong, the barbecue restaurant opened in 2012 by Korean wrestler-turned–television personality Kang Ho-dong. What you’ll find at Baekjeong are the sort of high-quality meats you’ve become accustomed to at high-end Korean barbecue places such as Park’s BBQ, but in an environment that feels like a rowdy, college-town beer hall. The menu, for one, looks like a hardcover comic book, and the tabletop grill is surrounded by a shallow trough partially filled with that classic Korean bar food, corn cheese. It also will be partially filled with scrambled eggs by a server who will nonchalantly pour the eggs out of a kettle before asking for your order; at that point, you’ll ask for a set of either beef (which comes beautifully marbled) or pork. The cheese will melt over the corn, the eggs will be softly scrambled, the meat platters will arrive and, with the server’s help, will be cooked as you desire. Maybe you’ll also grab some greens for balance. And some more of that corn cheese.

-- Tien Nguyen

Myung In Dumplings

photo by Danny Liao

If your experience of L.A.’s dumpling palaces has been restricted to the San Gabriel Valley, you may indeed be sated and happy — but you’re also missing out. In particular, don’t overlook Koreatown, where there are fantastic dumplings to be had, notably in the crowded strip mall on Olympic that houses Myung In Dumplings. These are handmade dumplings, called mandu here, and they’re Korean by way of China, as is the restaurant’s owner. The place has the kind of cafeteria vibe that makes it perfect for a lunch on your day off, maybe after you’ve spent a few hours at the Korean spa across the parking lot — a long lunch, if only to make sure you’ve ordered everything Anthony Bourdain devoured on his K-town TV food tour stop. (Thankfully, mysteriously, the place still never seems to be crowded.) The spicy pork dumplings, wrinkled like spent elastic cords and sauced with chiles, are awesome, as are the king dumplings, pale and enormous as softballs. Don’t forget a metal tray of steamed dumplings, too. They may not be as perfect as Din Tai Fung’s (what are?), but they’re awfully good, and provide a nice segue into the dumpling soups you’ll probably want to order, too. Bring some friends — or maybe your own film crew — to help you eat.

-- Amy Scattergood

Park’s BBQ

photo by Anne Fishbein

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.

-- Besha Rodell

Pollo a la Brasa

photo by Anne Fishbein

If rotisserie chicken seems like a banal dish, it’s time to head over to a certain Peruvian chicken shack in Koreatown. If you’re not a regular at Pollo a la Brasa (and you should be), you can Google it, or just drive until you see what looks like a dilapidated woodcutter’s cottage, complete with smoke rising from the chimney and piles of actual wood stacked outside. Nope, it’s not an errant movie set but rather home to some of this town’s best roasted chicken, spiced with garlic and pepper and wood smoke from the fires smoldering behind the little counter. You can order a whole or half bird, but, regardless of how much you get, you’ll want it with a pile of fries and warm tortillas and as much of the house-made green sauce as you can stand. Pull the bird apart with your hands, load your tortillas and douse everything with the contents of those magic squirt bottles of sauce (it’s probably what keeps the woodcutter going, too).

-- Amy Scattergood