Koreatown is the place to be now that upstart chefs are bringing fresh creativity to K-town classics.
A little more than a decade ago, Momofuku Noodle Bar opened in New York City. Soon its signature dish, Korean-style steamed buns with pork belly, was everywhere, and kimchi was ubiquitous enough to inspire a Lay's potato chip flavor. Now, a diverse brigade of chef-driven Korean restaurants is opening across the country. At Baroo in L.A., Korean-born Kwang Uh, who staged at Noma in Copenhagen, makes vegetarian-focused dishes like kimchi fried rice with fermented pineapple. On the other end of the spectrum is Manhattan's Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, where rising star Deuki Hong is a meat specialist. He "marinates his marinade" for his short ribs (i.e., lets it sit so the flavors meld) and cooks them on custom table grills, each with a cone-shaped vent that can be raised or lowered. "When I went to cooking school seven years ago, everyone wanted to work in big, famous kitchens like Jean-Georges," says Hong. "But since then Asian food has been on the rise, and chefs want to cook the food they like to eat. They all go out for Korean food at 2 a.m. after their shifts." Hong is so immersed in the cuisine, he co-wrote a cookbook called Koreatown. A best seller, it includes intel on Koreatowns across the country, based on Hong's own late-night research.
Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, Manhattan
At this barbecue mecca, Deuki Hong adds inventive sides to his meat-centric menu—the doshirak lunchbox is filled with fried rice, fried egg, fish cakes and kimchi. Waiters give the boxes a few hard, fast shakes before serving. "Our parents carried lunchboxes in their backpacks, and when they got to school, the food would be all shaken up," Hong explains. Baekjeong's raucous atmosphere is a magnet for K-town partiers. "We put on 'Gangnam Style' and just blow it out," says Hong. 1 E. 32nd St.; baekjeongnyc.com.
In a bright warehouse space, Trove is a choose-your-own-adventure restaurant offering four kinds of experience: There's a walk-up noodle bar, an ice cream parfait window, a barbecue zone and a bar with Asian-inflected cocktails. Diners can grill their Wagyu tri-tip and cured duck breast in tamarind sauce, or have the staff do it. "What makes Korean barbecue special is that you're very much part of the dinner experience," says chef Rachel Yang. 500 E. Pike St.; troveseattle.com.
Sujeo, Madison, WI
In summer, when the patio at Sujeo opens for cook-it-yourself barbecue, "people walking by can smell it," says Korean-born, Wisconsin-bred chef Tory Miller. "And they're like, 'I need that.'" Miller adds local twists to traditional Korean food, like topping rice cakes with Wisconsin cheddar. 10 N. Livingston St.; sujeomadison.com.
Baroo, Los Angeles
A bookshelf by the cash register holds mysterious jars, chef Kwang Uh's experiments in fermentation. These inspire dishes like Uh's signature noorook: an ultra-savory porridge with three types of fermented grains, dashi broth, macadamia nuts and roasted beet cream. The menu at Baroo only has eight dishes, but it's hard to characterize them beyond the term vegetable-centric. Uh simply calls his food "freestyle experimental, and fun in spirit." 5706 Santa Monica Blvd.; baroola.strikingly.com.
Chef Brandon Kirksey shows off his whole-animal butchery skills at this Korean steakhouse, using classic Korean barbecue marinades on American cuts like skirt steak and bone-in rib eye. The menu also showcases his deft touch with pasta: He hand- cuts the buckwheat noodles that he chills and tosses with bok choy kimchi. He also rolls out wrappers for dumplings. "They're basically superthin ravioli," he says. 501 Stadium Pl. S.; girinseattle.com.
At chef Sohui Kim's Insa, diners can sample exceptional banchan—small dishes like sesame-marinated nettles and steamed egg custard—or belt karaoke in the back rooms. Dishes like seafood "corn dogs" are playful yet authentic. "They're basically fish cakes on a stick," says Kim. "I wanted to offer stuff that normal Korean restaurants would not offer." 328 Douglass St.; insabrooklyn.com.
Korean menus: a beginner's glossary
"Mixed rice." Rice bowl topped with cooked vegetables and sometimes meat.
"Fire meat." Tender, thinly sliced grilled beef, marinated with garlic and soy sauce.
Chewy, sticky rice cakes in a sweet and spicy red chile sauce. A popular street-food dish in Korea.
"Mixed vegetables." Translucent sweet potato noodles stir-fried with vegetables.
"Stew." Hot soup; variations may include kimchi, soft tofu, meat or seafood.
Korean-style sushi rolls filled with ingredients like Spam, kimchi or beef.