Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Korean Food in K-town vs. Korea

Is Korean food in K-town (Koreatown) fully representative of the food one can find in Korea?

The answer is no. No matter how many restaurants you have eaten in K-town, you cannot understand the depth and breadth of Korean cuisine until you actually go and eat in Korea. Having a much larger population (almost 49,000,000) than the select group of Koreans who live in the U.S. (around 2,000,000), Korea has a greater diversity of restaurants and dishes served to the general population. Where in K-town can you find a restaurant specializing and serving only one dish? I recall eating at a small restaurant near Daegu (Korea's third largest city) that served only samgyetang (soup made of chicken stuffed with rice) and accompanying banchan (side dishes) like chicken gizzards, kkaktugi (cubed radish kimchi), etc. It was delicious. Where can you find Korean restaurants specializing in organic food in the U.S.? I remember a restaurant near the mountains of Daegu that served organic vegetables grown on its farm. Those are just two examples of Korean restaurants in one area of Korea that you are not likely to find in the U.S., a country with the largest Korean population overseas outside of China. Korean restaurants overseas cannot afford to have such a specialized focus due to the smaller population of Koreans in those countries.

Of course, eating Korean food as prepared in K-town does give you a good idea of a certain style of food found in Korean family restaurants. Eating Korean bbq or a homestyle meal can give you a good idea of what to expect from such establishments serving those dishes. The bulk of overseas restaurants are family style, catering to the local Korean immigrant/expatriate community. Most Koreans living in the U.S. left Korea before or during the 70's and 80's, so restaurants cater to this demographic who form the majority of their client base. Family restaurants do the best in the Korean community because they appeal to the widest demographic, from young to old, lower to upper class. Since Korean cuisine has not received wide notice outside of the Korean community until recently, restaurants had to make sure they served their Korean base. It was and is a matter of market demand just like with any other business. But one fortunate effect of this is that Korean food is one of the least bastardized cuisines in America. Even so, there is no need to adapt it for the tastes of the mainstream as it has gotten more popular without this modification. As long as Korean food is available and enjoyable for those who seek it, that is all that matters. Quality over quantity.

Now, there could be a greater variety of Korean restaurants in K-town compared to what is available today. But with higher-end restaurants like Dohwa (traditional), Danji (authentic Korean and fusion) and Jungsik (New Korean - Korean with French techniques) and the opening of Kristalbelli (Korean bbq cooked on crystal infrared grills) by J.Y. Park, the Korean music mogul, the Korean food scene is expanding in New York and the rest of America. There are also places like Bibigo where you can create your own bowl of bibimbap on order, serving "fast Korean", Korean food made quickly, but without the downsides commonly associated with fast food. As Korean food becomes better known, perhaps there will be more opportunities for entrepreneurs to open restaurants that go beyond the known standard of Korean bbq or homestyle cooking.


Posted by tastingkorea


  1. while I agree that the food in Korea is much better overall than in the States, you really can't judge the quality of Korean food here unless you've eaten extensively in LA's Koreatown (the real and original KTown). There are 250,000 people who live in a densely populated area, and another half million Koreans in the larger area that come to Koreatown to get ingredients and top notch cooking. Of course the breadth just isn't there. We're not talking Seoul here, but I've had some standout meals that could be as good or better than some I've had in Korea (and I've eaten in Seoul, Busan, Daejeon, Suhrak san, and Kyungju areas). One thing that L.A. has Korea beat with is beef barbeque. The number of Korean BBQ joints in Koreatown is staggering, and beats even the best places I've had in Seoul. But I generally agree that the super-specialized restaurants and homestyle restaurants aren't up to par with the Motherland - yet.

  2. Yes, I agree that Korean food in the U.S. can be as good as Korea at certain places. However, I just want people to keep things in perspective and not think that eating in K-town will make them a Korean food expert as I have seen that assumption from a few people. As far as Korean clientele in Ktown restaurants go, they're sort of stuck with what is there for better or worse. Not to say that it's necessarily bad, but I haven't had the best experience at Korean restaurants in Ktown and they were decently priced and popular restaurants. I felt like the food was heavy handed and sloppily prepared many times. I have encountered that in Korea as well, but I feel like there is a greater expectation for Korean food in Korea. People don't just cook to make money, but because they want to, in greater proportion compared to Koreatown. But I haven't gone out for Korean food in LA for a while, so things may have changed. But I would say that overall, the food scene is going to be better in Korea because there is so much competition and a much larger customer base.

  3. while I agree that the food in Korea is much better overall than in the States, you really can't judge the quality of Korean food here unless you've eaten extensively in LA's Koreatown (the real and original KTown).

    It looks like we don't disagree.


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