With the national popularity of Roy Choi’s Korean taco concept and the growth of David Chang’s Momofuku empire in New York, Korean food is gaining attention and influence among chefs and foodies across the country. Some might even say kimchi is the new sushi.
Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in Los Angeles, home to one of the largest Korean communities in the U.S. On Saturday, Aug. 7, thousands of hungry diners descended on a parking lot in L.A.’s Koreatown for the second annual Korean BBQ Cook-Off hosted by the Korean American Coalition. The event featured several top Korean BBQ restaurants and vendors, whose offerings were rated by a panel of judges including Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold, critically acclaimed LudoBites chef Ludo Lefebvre, and award-winning actress Sandra Oh.
The cook-off was conceived as a way to introduce Korean identity and culture to mainstream Los Angeles. “We thought the best way to accomplish this would be through food, specifically Korean BBQ,” said Allen Park, community outreach director for the Korean American Coalition. “It’s easy, delicious, and fun to eat, and getting to be very popular in LA.”
Korean restaurants are beginning to notice changes in their clientele as their cuisine starts to appeal to a wider audience. “Even three years ago, most of the people in Koreatown were Koreans and a lot didn’t speak English,” said Max Shin, whose father owns Hansong Restaurant, a Korean BBQ and seafood buffet in Koreatown. “But that’s definitely changing. Now, I’d say on an average night at our restaurant, it’s a 50/50 split between Koreans and Westerners.”
Korean cuisine influences and gets influenced
Diners aren’t the only ones embracing Korean cuisine. Chefs are also hopping on the bandwagon, with Korean ingredients and flavors showing up more and more at high-profile restaurants around L.A., including LudoBites, where Lefebvre frequently uses kimchi in his dishes. “Korean food is a big influence in America,” Lefebvre said. “I am French, and I cook a lot with kimchi at my restaurant. I’ve made kimchi foie gras, kimchi with cheese, and now I’m working on a kimchi dessert.”
Korean chefs are incorporating American influences into their native cuisine as well, perhaps playing off the success of Roy Choi’s Kogi tacos. At the Korean BBQ Cook-Off, visitors waited in line for half an hour to try Kalbi Burger and Seoul Sausage Company, which sold Korean-inspired burgers and hot dogs. But it was Choonchun Dakgalbi’s signature dish of chicken, rice cakes, yams and cheese in a spicy red sauce that won the attention of the judges. Cook-off judge Oh presented the restaurant with the award for best fusion dish. “I love the fact that Korean food, especially in LA, is moving forward,” she said. “I’m totally there with you guys to expand Korean flavors.”
The rise of Korean cuisine may be more than just a passing trend. Last year, the South Korean government launched a “Global Hansik” campaign to make Korean food one of the five most popular ethnic cuisines in the world. To accomplish this goal, the campaign plans to open Korean cooking classes at culinary schools such as Le Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America, promote celebrity Korean chefs and health benefits of Korean food and increase the number of Korean restaurants overseas to 40,000 by 2017. This year, the Korean government poured thousands of dollars into its newly opened Korean Food Foundation and plans may still be in the works for a kimchi institute.
Everyone goes to Koreatown
Despite these aggressive marketing tactics, some think Korean cuisine’s popularity may be more organic. “The Korean nightlife scene in Los Angeles is so strong,” said food critic Gold. “There’s something about how Korean cooking more than anything else ties into the drinking culture. The strength and purity of Korean flavors makes it a perfect match.” Lefebvre echoed Gold’s sentiments. “In Los Angeles, everyone is talking about Koreatown,” he said. “When people want to go out, they go to Koreatown for Korean food, soju (Korea’s answer to vodka) and karaoke.”
Gold also pointed to Korean-Americans’ willingness to share Korean culture as a catalyst for the cuisine’s rise. “There’s something about young, second-generation Korean-Americans assimilating to American culture — they’re just really good at it,” he said. “First-generation Koreans banded together, and Koreatown was almost impenetrable when it started out. But now, everyone knows Koreans, everyone has Korean friends, and everyone goes to Koreatown.”
Mackie Jimbo is a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who writes about her budget-friendly dining adventures at her website, The Unpaid Gourmet.