First, as a much needed public service, here are several things you've always wanted to know about Korean food, but haven't had the foggiest notion who to ask.
1. More than one third of America's Korean population lives in Los Angeles.
2. Korean food is not what you get when you mix together Japanese and Chinese cooking. Korean cuisine is Korean cuisine.
3. In a typical Korean meal, all the dishes arrive at once. This can make you crazy. At one recent meal, involving just four diners, 26 dishes appeared at the same time. All four of us stared at the dishes for some time before randomly digging into this and that. The sequential possibilities are truly endless.
4. In most Korean restaurants (marked in front by the secret code term "BBQ"), a brazier called a "hwaro" - basically a tabletop hibachi - is brought to your table, and you're expected to do your own cooking, of raw things like marinated beef (bulgogi), beef short ribs (kalbi), pork and chicken. This is an experience that's lots of fun, as long as you don't mind the fact that if you don't constantly work the hwaro, morsel after morsel will be turned into a burnt offering. Especially if you consume too many OB Beers.
5. Kimchee is a wonderfully spicy pickled thing, usually cabbage or radishes, always heavily garlicked. As Korean cooking becomes increasingly influenced by California cuisine, I expect to encounter avocado kimchee and artichoke kimchee, to say nothing of the highly alliterative kiwi kimchee.
6. Some Korean restaurants also have sushi bars, while others offer Chinese food on the menu. Though there's much about the fierce flavors of the Korean barbecue and the delicate flavors of sushi that don't match very well at all, I will admit that I've had some remarkable sushi in a number of Korean restaurants. (Though why raw garlic is served with the sushi in Korean eateries remains a puzzle to me)
7. Beer is the best thing to drink with Korean cooking. It's served in very large bottles. After a few bites of kimchee, you'll understand why.
8. Most of the Korean restaurants of Southern California are found clustered in the mini-malls of Koreatown, just west of Downtown Los Angeles, and in the mini-malls of Gardena's Little Tokyo, which is fast becoming a Little Seoul, a parallel Koreatown. But although that's where you'll find most of our Korean restaurants, it's not where you'll find all of them.
Pasadena used to be home to a remarkable Korean barbecue house called Arirang, the Old Pasadena branch of a vaunted restaurant from Hong Kong. I miss Arirang - it was a beautiful space with amazing food. But trying at least as hard is the staff at Gaon Korean BBQ, which sits on a nondescript block several miles east of Old Pasadena. It is a restaurant with no windows, so it feels like the doorway into an alternative universe. Or at least, a very Korean universe.
Gaon doesn't have tabletop grills. Or at least, it didn't as of a couple of weeks ago. The owner said that plans were in the works for grills. But really, I'm perfectly happy to have my bulgogi and my kalbi cooked in the kitchen, by those who won't turn the meat into tasty chunks of charcoal. I've done the cook-it-yourself thing. It's fun. But it's not nearly as much fun as a table full of small dishes - a mini-buffet right in front of you, which at Gaon varies from day to day. The chef has a restless spirit, and likes to vary his banchan whenever possible.
Which, on this particular occasion, meant (for instance) slices of spiced aspic rather than Korean-style potato salad. As long as there are plenty of kimchees, I'm happy for lots of variety.
If you want to stick with the safety of Korean barbecued dishes, you'll certainly be a happy camper at Gaon. There's beef ribeye, beef short ribs, chicken breast, pork shoulder and jumbo shrimp, all served on a sizzling hot plate, all cooked far better than I ever manage. But the prices are so reasonable here - about a third less than at most barbecue shops - that you might as well do a little exploring.
Consider, for instance, the downhome Korean pancake called pajeon, a latke made with sundry seafood and scallions, and one of the most satisfying appetizers I can think of.
Somewhat unexpectedly, there's a crepe filled with panfried leeks and Dungeness crab coated with a mustard sauce. Its Korean name is ge sal mal, but it sure does look (and taste) French.
And the Cajun seared tuna definitely tastes Cajun; as well it should, for it is. There's also a feta cheese and iceberg lettuce salad on the menu. Why? Darned if I know. But it's there. Just in case.
Another world worth exploring is the realm of bibimbap, the wonderful rice casserole made with a zillion vegetables, lots of spices, and usually an egg cooking in the heat of the rice. There's also a delicate prep of Chilean sea bass in a pepper and vinegar dressing. And an even more delicate black cod and Korean radish dish. And for dessert - there's mille feuille and banana sabayon. Neither of which is cooked anywhere near a barbecue grill.
Gaon Korean BBQ is a Korean restaurant of the Old School. Cham Korean Bistro, by contrast, is a Korean restaurant of the New School. Rather than dubbing the chow here "fast food," with its many negative connotations, let's say it's "fast casual" - a menu built around dishes that are intended to come out of the kitchen with lightning speed, and be eaten with what's at its very least, an impressive efficiency.
This is a great place to go for lunch, if you're a Dilbert working in one of the surrounding office buildings.
This is not to say you can't linger at Cham; actually, you can linger quite well. The place is modern, but comfortable. There's a good list of bottled beers, ranging from Korean Hite, to oddities like Mama's Little Yella Pils and Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel. There are several quirky wines. And they go very well with the quasi-Korean tapas selection: ahi tuna with a South American chimichurri sauce, calamari mini-tacos topped with saut ed kimchee, a kimchee and cheese "pouch."
I love the hot pot of beef bulgogi and glass noodles in a hot pot, dappled with a smattering of tiny enoki mushrooms. I think the steamed buns filled variously with beef, pork and chicken are a perfect snack. I'm glad to have the barbecue and garden platter combo (there are seven of them) for lunch anytime. And there are four bibimbaps, including one made with spicy tuna. Which is so totally not your father's Korean food. Like the menu says, Cham is all about "Life, Taste, Happiness." With an emphasis on the Happiness.
GAON KOREAN BBQ
2063 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 626-796-9604
Lunch and dinner, daily
The Food: In a section of Colorado Boulevard far from Old Pasadena, this windowless Korean barbecue house is one of the best places in the San Gabriel Valley to go for Seoul food, served in a dark (but not gloomy) room of many booths in which an assortment of spiced meats are served atop sizzling hot plates surrounded by a dozen or so small dishes. The traditional banchan that comes with Korean barbecue at this eatery where the motto is, "Eat Healthy, Live Healthy."
About $25 per person. MC, V
Beer and sake
Rating: 2 1/2 Stars
CHAM KOREAN BISTRO
851 Cordova St., Pasadena, 626-792-2474
Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday.
The Food: In the same minimalist space that was once home to the Seoul Bros. Korean restaurant, this Nouvelle Korean offers an alternative take on Korean cooking, with an open kitchen where they prepare highly spiced small plates like the trio of tofu pockets (stuffed various with marinated fresh crab, and with spicy tuna with pea shoots), and the bulgogi ssam platter, dishes created by a veteran of AOC - in other words, Korean cuisine with a twist.
About $15 per person. MC, V
Beer and wine
Reservations: Not necessary
Rating: 2 1/2 Stars