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Order Smarter At Korean Restaurants

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor
June 17, 2014

Every cuisine has its most famous dishes, every diner her go-to dish. But even your beloved pad Thai/cheese enchiladas/Alaska roll can get a little tired. Break out of that ordering rut with the help of smartypants experts who know all the menu’s secret tricks and gems.

You better like kimchi! Photo credit: © StockFood / Baranowski, Andre

You might love Korean food. Or you might not know if you love it, but want to try it out. Either way, there are some things to keep in mind when you’re choosing the spot and the food itself, and South Korearaised American writer Alexander Chee knows what they are. AND HE’S SHARED THEM.

Don’t listen to Yelp. “Every Korean restaurant in the U.S. will have some Korean person on Yelp saying, ‘This place is inauthentic!’ Meanwhile, you’ll go and it will be totally fine,” says Chee. “That’s because they’re not home, and so the standard is really high.” Better to pay attention to other things. Such as…

Look for short menus. “The best places are the ones that have fewer menu items,” says Chee, “and really focus on a couple of things. They’ll do those couple things really well.”

Avoid the 24-hour spots. “There are a lot of them because there are a lot of Korean-American students,” says Chee. “They’re the ones who end up going out the most, so they’re catered to a lot.” That means you’ll get what you want in terms of accessibility and affordability, but not quality. “They don’t really care how good it is,” says Chee. That said, Chee recommends BCD Tofu House, which has locations in both New York and Los Angeles, as an exception to his rule.

Look for happy faces. When you walk in, there should be a sense of cheerfulness. “That means [the waiters] like their food and they’re excited to serve it,” says Chee. “In Korea, no one likes being a waiter. So if they’re working in a food service job and they seem cheerful, then it’s probably a really good place. And they’re probably enjoying their staff meals!”

Soondubu Photo credit: © StockFood / Yarvin, Brian

Ask for banchan. Banchan are small dishes of food—a mix of kimchis, anchovies, potato salad, seaweed, and other things, depending on the restaurant—served alongside a Korean meal. “The menu will never say it’s included,” says Chee. So ask: Does this include banchan? “Then they know that you know,” says Chee. “It really tells them that you know a few things.”

Know a few dishes (and how to pronounce them). There are some particular dishes Chee recommends; knowing them will come in handy not only for enjoying the meal but also for having one at all—the menu might just be written in Korean.

Soondubu, a spicy tofu soup, is a classic you can order pretty much anywhere. If you’re not a fan of spicy food, try samgaetang, a ginseng chicken stew. “It’s stuffed with rice and a chestnut, and the flavor is very gentle,” says Chee. Kulguksu is another dish—a noodle soup—that’s on the milder side. Less well-known is jjajangmyeon, or noodles with diced pork, vegetables, and a salty black soybean sauce. It was a Chinese dish that became popular in Korea; the Koreans tweaked it a bit. “A friend of mine swears that’s the sign of a really good Korean restaurant, but he’s Chinese, so of course he would say that!” says Chee.

Then there are gochujeon—battered, fried long green peppers stuffed with pork. “It’s an appetizer, but honestly, you might just want that,” Chee laughed. His favorite thing to order? Daeji bulgogi, spicy pork meatballs, of sorts, that come with rice and lettuce wraps. “One sign that a Korean restaurant is really good is if you get perilla leaves along with your lettuce wraps,” says Chee. “When you can use both to wrap around your bulgogi, it’s amazing.”

There’s no shame in forks. Chee gives you permission to ask for them. “The metal chopsticks are really hard to use,” he says, so go ahead and fork it up. You won’t be judged.

Point and trust. Some parting words from Los Angeles chef Roy Choi: “Korean food is not eaten in a linear format; it’s a visceral ongoing experience.” Since most menus are short and concise, he says, “just point and trust. Then point again when you want more. It’s okay to order more even after the meal is over. Because it’s never over.”