Header image: bulgogi sliders at Mokbar; fire-grilled bulgogi at Her Name Is Han
There is no doubt that Korean food is having a certified moment in America. Chefs like Corey Lee at Benu in San Francisco and Beverly Kim of Parachute in Chicago are creatively integrating Korean products like doenjang (fermented soy bean pasta) and jujubes (dried Korean dates) into their high-minded cooking, with a legion of young, upstart Korean-American chefs like Peter Cho (Portland, Oregon), Kwang Uh (Los Angeles) and Deuki Hong (New York City) following close behind.
To truly get a sense of the depth and excitement of Korean food, you must also venture into one of the old-school places; the traditional soup and stew restaurants or the counter selling freshly rolled mandu (Korean-style dumplings). With the possible exception of LA, there is no finer place to eat Korean food in America than New York City.
While writing Koreatown I spent many nights combing the city for the best examples of classic and newly imagined Korean cooking. Here are some of my favourites, located in the heart of Koreatown in Manhattan (East 32nd Street) and beyond.
53 W 35th St, New York, NY 10001; 212-629-5588
Tucked away on 35th Street, just north of the main stretch, you will find New York’s best example of what is arguably Korea’s best dish: Gamjatang. Pork neck is stewed in a rich pork stock mingling with black peppercorns, earthy wild sesame seeds and giants hunks of potatoes. Service is swift and to the point, but don’t let them steer you towards a “safer” dolsot bibimbap (mixed rice bowl served in a scorching earthenware pot), unless of course that is what you're in the mood for.
What to order: Kalbijjim (short rib stew), kongbiji jjigae (blended tofu soup), chunggookjang (extra-fermented soy bean stew).
17 E 31st St, New York, NY 10016, (212) 779-9990
Opened last year and a relative upstart, this sleeper spot on 31st Street is immensely creative. Take, for example, their non-traditional bibimbap, made with farro instead of white rice and topped with seasoned vegetables and a delicious homemade ssamjang (fermented soy bean sauce). The vibe feels like you walked into a hip little restaurant in Hongdae in Seoul.
What do order: Ganjang gejang (soy-sauce marinated crabs), jeyuk bokkeum (stir-fried pork belly), bossam (steam pork belly).
14924 41st Ave Flushing, NY 11355; 718-886-8292
Due to restrictive clean-air laws, finding a Korean restaurant that serves grilled meat cooked over blistering charcoal grills is nearly impossible. Some would argue that cooking over a gas grill will give the marinated beef a similar charred flavour, but I couldn’t disagree more. Thankfully, Mapo BBQ in Murray Hill, Queens is still kicking it old school.
What to order: Kalbi (marinated shortrib), samgyeopsal (pork belly), doenjang jjigae (fermented soy bean stew). Soondubu jjigae (silken tofu soup).
1 E 32nd St, New York, NY 10016; 212-966-9839
The fans of Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong include a who’s who in the food and entertainment world: David Chang, Anthony Bourdain and The Roots food-obsessed bandleader Questlove are all featured on the restaurant’s wall of famous customers. The reason they keep turning up to 32nd Street? Chef Deuki Hong is doing all the little things right — which are actually big things when you talk about the scale of this perpetually packed restaurant. The beef he uses in his barbecue is USDA Prime, and grilled table-side with technique from his well-trained servers. The kimchi stew is some of the best in the city. Well worth waiting in line for.
What do order: Beef combo, kinchi and rice “shake” box, kimchi jjigae, mandu (Korean dumplings).
75 9th Ave, New York, NY 10011; 646-964-5963
Classic ramen at Mokbar
Korean-style ramen, anyone? Merging Korean and Japanese cooking traditions might sound like a political minefield, but chef Esther Choi does this beautifully with what is more a noodle-centric take on classic Korean dishes like kimchi and budae jjigae — the latter a bowl of noodles topped with sausage, pork belly, bacon, kimchi, tofu and Spam. All bowls can be topped with poached eggs, which makes everything better.
What do order: Soybean biji ramen, bibimbap ramen, Mokbar wings.