One of the city's most thrilling neighborhoods to roam around and stuff yourself, Koreatown packs a staggering number of restaurants, diners, and pubs among layers of storefronts that can also be easily mistaken for restaurants. At times, it's intimidating to know where to begin or how to proceed. Today, we're starting off with three approachable restaurants on a busy drag of Wilshire where skyscrapers dispense with a hard-working lunch crowd and the side streets, shopping centers, and plazas buzz with dedicated diners at night. Have a look at three varied and accessible eating options, and one dive bar classic, in this five-block stretch of Wilshire Blvd. in Koreatown.
BCD Tofu House is a 15-year-old classic that first sprung on L.A. before branching out to additional SoCal locations and eventually to a few depots in Korea and Japan. While the specialty is a traditional fiery soon tubu tofu stew that arrives bubbling to the table, this is not a vegetarian restaurant as its name might suggest to the uninitiated. The restaurant feeds crowds 24 hours a day with huge combo meals that include a variety of meats and banchan (side dishes).
The molten tofu broth, a stone bowl of deep red bobbing with melt-in-your-maw tofu and an assortment of sea creatures, can be paired with rich sides of adobe-red pork or grilled beef bulgogi, spicy crab, bimibap, man-doo dumplings, mixed veggies, or chicken terriyaki, among the options, and the order usually comes under fifteen dollars with the inclusion of an incredible, whole, fried yellow croaker fish, kim chi, pickled sprouts, a bowl of rice, and an egg for cracking into your soup. KTown doesn't just feed you, it FEEDS you, and after eating a massive, ritually-assembled meal here, you discover it's still not finished as the server scrapes your rice bowl and puts the scraps in a bowl of warm water for you to enjoy eating all over again. The meat is terrific, the soup lush, and the commonly experienced wait for a table testifies that this place rules. Currently, a major addition is being built, so expect this branch of BCD to accommodate more diners in the near future.
BCD Tofu House, 3575 Wilshire Blvd. Koreatown.
BonJuk might not be the only restaurant in the world with the word "urination" on its menu, but it's the first we've seen. If you're to believe the restaurant's claims, the staple here might be a miracle cure for anything from advancing age to beauty issues to yes, keeping your urinary functions timely. Bon Juk serves just sixteen dishes, each variations on juk, the Korean version of porridge. After an introductory cup of tea, bowls land on the table in gorgeous colors and arrangements, each one specific and different in their assembly. Pumpkin porridge, black sesame (called the "never get old" grain) porridge, pine nut porridge, and a variety of seafood and meat porridges all border the nine to eleven dollar price range, while a bowl of abalone porridge, apparently a big hit with the Royals, must be a special occasion treat at $30.
For lovers of starchier, thicker congee, the porridge, while artfully arranged with great dedication, might seem a little bland at first, but it's the kind of dish that grows on you with every bite and even more so once you start spooning in the gochujang (spicy chili paste) from your banchan. Soon, it becomes a little difficult to put the spoon down, especially when enjoying the mix of shellfish and soft squidy nibbles in an eight-fish seafood combo that feels like a creamier take on jambalaya. The meal here has a true beginning, middle, and end, starting with tea, peaking in the porridge, and ending on a complimentary cup of sweet, cinnamon and persimmon-kissed sujeonggwa, the perfect dessert drink to follow.
BonJuk, 3551 Wilshire Blvd. Koreatown. 213-380-2248.
The Boiling Crab is a Southern Californian Cajun seafood chain founded by a Vietnamese family with New Orleans heritage that just landed in a KTown plaza near to where the original location of the legendary, long-gone Brown Derby once held court. It is currently very, very popular, as the big groups of smoking teenagers that wait 30-40 minutes for a table here can attest. Put your name down, avoid giving up and going for the shaggy golden fried things at Wako next door, and head to HMS Bounty for a drink. You'll easily be able to enjoy 25 minutes of the dive classic's maritime decor and friendly regulars before going back just to find the same people you just left still waiting for their tables.
Once you get in to Boiling Crab, the concept is simple and the service is on it, even tying your bib for you. This is shellfish at an incredibly low price. Lobster at $16.95 a pound, whole Dungeness crab at $12.95 a pound, crawfish and peel n' eat shrimp for $8.95 a pound, and options for oysters and clams with varying choices of spices and heat levels. There are also options for fried catfish, oysters, fries, and hot wings, plus a small sampling of Cajun sides.
Everything, even the super-cheap Louisiana sausages, arrive in a plastic bag filled messily with seafood and a design-it-yourself mix of spices and juices. This place, in stark contrast to the orderly bowls of porridge at calm BonJuk, is designed for you to get dirty. Your bag of crustaceans opens into a sea of mudbugs (or whatever you've ordered) drenched in sauce. With sauce all over your hands, you pick 'em, crack 'em, suck 'em, and generally make a total pig out of yourself with nothing but a roll of paper towels to help preserve your dignity. The place is fun and interactive (you sometimes get so into picking apart your prey that you forget you're in public), the seafood cheap and delicious, and besides the wait, the only bummer is this location has no liquor license yet, even though the food demands a partner from a cold beer. Definitely make a date with The Boiling Crab at some point and don't leave without getting a piece of corn or two simmered in the same bag as your seafood.
The Boiling Crab, 3377 Wilshire Blvd. Koreatown. 213-389-2722.
HMS Bounty, one of KTown's true divey classics. Perfect for some grog while you wait for your table at Boiling Crab. 3357 Wilshire Blvd. Koreatown. 213-385-7275.
See our past Strip Search features on Grub Street L.A.