Koreatown/Westlake | 99 Essential Restaurants 2015

Koreatown/Westlake

Beverly Soon Tofu

photo by Ryan Orange

Monica Lee opened Beverly Soon Tofu on Beverly Boulevard and St. Andrews Place in 1986, and it was maybe the first restaurant in the neighborhood to specialize in the fiery Korean tofu stew known as soon tofu. Two years later, she opened her place in a small plaza on Olympic, right off of Vermont, where it’s been ever since. A cross-section of Koreatown passes through Beverly Soon Tofu daily: On any given afternoon, you’ll find USC kids outfitted in a color of red that matches the cauldrons of bubbling tofu stew in front of them; business types with ties thrown back like scarves, scarfing down their lunch; multigenerational families settling in for a long afternoon of stew and barley tea. There are many, many iterations of soon tofu here, including the original, with soft, springy tofu. There’s also soon tofu with meat, soon tofu with seafood, soon tofu with fish roe — you get the idea. As if that weren’t enough, you can (and should) combine your soup with something like a sizzling plate of galbi or an enormous bowl of bibimbap. —Tien Nguyen

Guelaguetza

photo by Danny Liao

It’s been said that Mexicans often align themselves not by country but by their state, an observation that makes sense when you consider the uniqueness of L.A.’s Oaxacan neighborhood, a collection of tile-floored restaurants along the southern edge of Koreatown. At its heart is Guelaguetza, opened in 2000 by the multigenerational Lopez family, which serves as a local cultural center as much as a restaurant. You come here to watch El Trigo triumph in World Cup qualifying matches or to celebrate your neighbor’s daughter’s quinceañera. You come here to sip rare mezcal at the colorfully decorated bar, or sample several delicate varieties of region-specific moles poured over slabs of poached chicken. At the very least, you come here for a spicy, chile-rimmed michelada and a platter-sized tlayuda, a crisp-edged tortilla overloaded with herbaceous black beans, stringy white cheese and a large flap of air-cured pork called cecina. Even if you’ve never set foot in Oaxaca, it tastes like home. —Garrett Snyder

Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong

photo by Anne Fishbein

The walls of Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong are adorned with comic book–style illustrations of Kang-Ho Dong, the chain’s charismatic Korean wrestler owner/mascot, sweatily grappling pigs into submission, as if your dinner is here because he personally defeated it. However it got here, it’s delicious, especially when washed down with beer or with ice-cold soju that turns to jelly when it hits your glass. When you arrive at your table in the cavernous, bare-bones room, your meal will already be partially set up for you. Around your circular table, which has in its center a charcoal-burning grill, will be various sauces and salads, a slice of pumpkin and other banchan, and around the grill will be a trough of egg and another of corn and cheese, which will cook slowly once the meat you’re about to order hits the grill. Choices here are fairly easy — various cuts of beef or pork, or perhaps a set meal of one or the other (or both). The set meals offer a variety of cuts; we suggest the beef meal over the pork for quality, but go piggy if you desire. Either way, it’s a bargain — the smaller meal (there are two sizes) will easily feed three people, and it comes with a bubbling vat of kimchi stew to whet your appetite. At its heart, Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong is a beer and meat hall, plain and simple. If you like your beer and meat with charcoal smoke, cheesy corn and a soundtrack of loud K-pop, this is the place for you.—Besha Rodell

Langer's Deli

photo by Anne Fishbein

Life is fickle. Things change. There’s not much you can count on. What can you count on? Langer’s Deli. Langer’s will never change, or at least we hope with the fiercest of hopes that it will never change. Because as citizens of L.A. we need to be able to stand in that line, we need to be seated in one of those brown vinyl booths, we need to order that pastrami sandwich and get it on that bread served by these people in this room. Since 1947, Langer’s has been delivering what many believe to be the best pastrami sandwich on Earth. Whether you go for plain pastrami on rye or the famous No. 19 with swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing is between you and your god, but either way Langer’s gives us all something solid to hold on to in this cruel, unpredictable world.—Besha Rodell

Myung In Dumplings

photo by Danny Liao

If ever you doubted the immense influence of Tony Bourdain, head on over to Myung In Dumplings, the fantastic Korean dumpling house that used to be the subject of one of L.A.’s great mysteries: Why, when these handmade dumplings are so damn delicious, was no one ever in the dining room? The place is empty no more: Since Bourdain stopped by for the Koreatown episode of “Parts Unknown,” business has been much brisker. Bourdain, of course, only reiterated what many of us already knew: Even if you were to take all the Chinese and Japanese dumplings in L.A. into account, 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 Mr. Bourdain, who is smiling down at you from a huge photograph on the wall: Order the large steamed mandu, and glory in the experience, which is much like eating a doughy, pork-filled softball. —Besha Rodell

Park's BBQ

photo by Anne Fishbein

Of the handful of chefs in Los Angeles who make meat their primary objects of attention, Jenee Kim ranks among the best. Since her Park’s BBQ opened in 2003, a huge number of KBBQ joints have opened; still, Park’s is the standard to which others are compared. Indeed, few places source the same quality meat, with the same level of service, that Park’s does, so much so that it is perhaps the closest thing to a fine-dining restaurant that a Korean BBQ joint can be. Your tabletop grill will sizzle with stellar prime rib-eye and Wagyu ribs, as well as the juicy marinated galbi. The meat alone could feed a small army, but you’ll also probably want the dinner plate–sized egg pancake, studded with rock shrimp and vegetables and cooked till the edges are a lovely crisp. Yes, all the very high-quality meat and ingredients means Park’s is considerably more expensive than the other KBBQ places within walking distance from this corner of Olympic and Vermont. But it’s also leaps and bounds better. —Tien Nguyen

Pollo a la Brasa

photo by Anne Fishbein

Pollo a la Brasa has been the default go-to for Peruvian-style chicken for years now, and if you haven’t been here already, surely you’ve driven past it. Located in the heart of Koreatown, this is the spot you see as you sit in traffic on Western, a hut with freshly cut wood piled outside like a scene out of Fargo. Here you’ll find pretty awesome rotisserie chicken, lined up, rotating and glistening on horizontal spits in a huge oven. You can order the chicken whole or in halves, with fries or rice or without; regardless, it’ll come with warm tortillas and as many cupfuls of the green aji sauce as you can manage. The chicken is remarkably juicy, its skin nicely browned to a crisp. You’ll tear off a piece here, then stuff it in a tortilla and douse it all in aji. This, Ron Popeil, is a showtime-worthy bird. —Tien Nguyen

POT

photo by Anne Fishbein

Roy Choi’s restaurant on the ground floor of Koreatown’s Line Hotel is a triumph of Korean youth culture in all its glory. From the overt weed-smoking theme to the throwback cocktails (Long Island iced tea on tap, anyone?) to the pun-filled menu, Choi presents us with a smart, delicious take on a modern Korean restaurant. And who would have known that kimchi fried rice goes so well with weird white wines from the Jura? POT is one of the clearest examples of our culinary landscape’s most exciting modern development: the children of immigrants stepping up and telling their own story, one that hasn’t been part of the conversation until recently. In that sense, eating at POT is a chance to experience culture unfolding and changing, right there on the table before you. —Besha Rodell

Saint Martha

photo by Anne Fishbein

Saint Martha — named for the patron saint of cooks and servants — joins the ranks of small, ambitious restaurants that open with little fanfare and even less money. The whimsical space behind a heavy wooden door in a run-down strip mall in Koreatown is decorated with classic oil paintings that make you look twice: The woman sitting in a 19th-century portrait pose has an intricate neck tattoo creeping down her décolletage; a neon sign above the open kitchen reads “hipster.” Chef Nick Erven’s food is theatrical and ambitious, with the same humor and attention to aesthetics that make the room so much fun. There’s an exuberance here, a youthful energy that never quite veers into brattiness or posturing. Erven and Co. are here to have a good time, to drink some good wine and to play with our expectations. It’s a good game. —Besha Rodell