July 25, 2012

discover the curious city

There are eight culinary traditions in Chinese culture based on the different major regions across China. But as I mentioned before in the previous post, the community living in Chinatown today is mostly Cantonese, so the food found here is predominatly Cantonese food. Cantonese food is the most popular Chinese cuisine in Western culture and I can see why - it's fun to eat, the variety of dishes are endless, and it's just so delicious.

My guide to good eats in Chinatown will consist of my favorite restaurants that specialize in different types of Cantonese food. Because Chinatown is a tourist destination, you don't have to worry about not speaking Chinese. Everyone speaks English and the menus are printed in both Chinese and English.

Chinatown Food - Quick and (Gr)easy
Dim Sum
I would describe Dim Sum as Chinese tapas or afternoon tea. The food is prepared in bite-sized portions and served in small steamer baskets or plates. You usually pick a dish from a moving cart that is circling your table - this is the fun part. Eating dim sum is paired with drinking tea which helps clear the palate each time before you eat something new. 
  • Empress Pavilion - 988 N. Hill St./ $ / This place is always packed for brunch on the weekends and especially on holidays. But don't fret, the restaurant is huge so table turnover is fast. Parking is also easy because there is a garage and they validate. The first thing I do after I get seated is order tea. My tea of choice for dim sum is always chrysanthemum tea. Then I start scouting the carts for my favorite dishes - chang fen, a rice noodle stuffed with meats/vegetables and drizzled with a sweetened soy sauce, and dou hua, a sweet soup made of soft tofu and ginger/sugar syrup (you can see me eating it in this post). For a good list of dim sum dishes, check out wikipedia
If I were playing Pictionary and the word was Chinese BBQ, I would draw a row of hanging ducks, chickens, and pigs with oil dripping down their feet behind the window of a restaurant. I'd probably draw a pair of chopsticks too. Hopefully you would guess correctly because this is typically what you'd see when you step into a Chinese BBQ restaurant.
  • Sam Woo - 803 N. Broadway / $ / Not your prettiest restaurant but who needs pretty when the food tastes this good. The go to bbq dishes to get are the roasted duck and the soy sauce chicken. They have a couple of accompanying dipping sauces but my favorite is the ginger/green onion sauce. Their pan fried noodles are also excellent and comes topped with goodies like bak choy and bbq pork. My favorite way to eat the pan fried noodles is to drench the crispy noodles with red vinegar...gah so good! 
Basically everything you could ask for, no surprises, just good old Cantonese food.
  • Master Chef - 937 N. Hill St. / $$ / I love that this place is open late and has late-night specials. You could probably close your eyes and just start pointing to things on the menu because everything on it tastes good. But if you'd rather not, I suggest ordering the classics like hot and sour soup, beef chow fun (fat noodles), sauteed string beans with garlic sauce, honey walnut shrimp, peking duck, deep fried pork chops with spicy salt, etc...
Canton, or Guangdong, is located on the southern coast of China, so the Cantonese know their seafood. They love their fish, crab, lobster, shrimp, scallops, abalone, shark fin - you name it. At seafood restaurants, you usually get to pick your fish right out of the fish tank so you know it's fresh.
  • Ocean Seafood - 750 N. Hill St. / $$$ / I only go here for more formal family dinners or celebrations because it is on the pricier side, but for good reason. The seafood here is really fresh and you know it because the seasonings aren't too heavy or spicy so the sweetness of the meat shines through. My favorite dish is the baked crab with ginger and green onion. My family always orders this just for me because I'm the only one with enough patience to get the meat out of the shell. 
Baked Goods and Pastries
  • Won Kok - 210 Alpine St. / $ / This place has the best cha sui bao or bbq pork buns. But they are the big ones, the size of a hamburger, not the small ones you get at dim sum. Despite their size, Antony still eats them like he breathes air. They also have pretty good egg tarts.
  • Queens Bakery - 809 N Broadway / $ / My brother Wilson loves their cakes but I go there for the specialty baked goods that only come out during Chinese holidays. They have really delicious nian gao or Chinese New Year cakes. I like to eat it pan fried and sometimes pan fried with an egg for breakfast. I also love their yue bing or mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival. During the Dragon Boat Festival they have different kinds of zong zi which is sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf filled with meat/veggies or sweet bean paste.
There is a large Chinese-Vietnamese community in Chinatown so it is pretty easy to find a good bowl of pho.
  • Pho 87 - 1019 N. Broadway / $ / This place is as authentic as it gets, lightyears better than the trendy hipster pho places in Downtown LA or Silver Lake. How do I know? It's all in the flavor of the broth. And Antony told me, he's 1/8 Vietnamese! But really, this place is legit. Besides the pho, my favorite dish is the vegetarian spring rolls. It's stuffed with tofu, carrots, basil, mint, and rice noodles with a side of peanut-hoisin-fish sauce. So fresh, healthy, and flavorful.

Check out our other guides on Chinatown and Koreatown:
The food in Koreatown is endless. I could go on and on, and to be honest, I think that I don't know most of the restaurants. Since I come from a Korean household, we ate Korean food at home. Going out was reserved for non-Korean food that couldn't be made at home.

For those of you who are completely mystified by where you should eat in Koreatown, here's a basic guide of nonthreatening foods that even the pickiest eaters will eat. I've put 2 restaurants in most categories - one where I've seen lots of non-Korean speakers and one where I haven't. If you'd like to delve deeper into Koreatown, Jonathan Gold wrote up a guide to Koreatown earlier this year. Also, Yelp has really made Koreatown much more accessible.

Koreatown Food - Quick & Easy
Soon Tofu
Soon Tofu is basically spicy tofu soup/stew with beef/pork/veggie/seafood with rice and side dishes. It's so delicious, easy to eat, and customizable for your spiciness tolerance level. It's so good on a cold day, after snowboarding, or if you're feeling sick.
  • BCD Tofu House: One on Western & 8th, one on Wilshire & Ardmore. There are tons of non-Korean speakers here. It's easy to order in English here bc the menu is in English, and the waiters are bilingual. The one on Wilshire & Ardmore was just renovated and in my opinion, the food is better there. But the line is crazy ridiculous. I'm talking about taking tickets and waiting a long time. I think it's also open 24 hours a day, so it's great as an after hours post-drinking meal. Usually when I go, I get a Kalbi combo and share. The combo comes with a smaller soon tofu though.
  • So Kong Dong: 2716 W Olympic Blvd # 104. Most folks who are my generation like So Kong Dong bc it tastes better than any other soon tofu spot. I'm not sure if the waiters here are fully bilingual bc I've only heard them speak Korean, but they probably do.
Bastardized Chinese Food
Because of proximity to China and a long history rooting back to China, one type of Korean food is Chinese food, but it's not really Chinese food. It's more like bastardized Chinese food, but it's one of my faves for greasy goodness.
  • Young Kyung: 3100 W Olympic Blvd. This is a restaurant that's been around for years, and they are famous for their "Young Kyung Chicken" which is fried chicken with a special sauce poured over it. Other good entrees to share are Mongolian beef, Tang Soo Yuk (fried pork with sauce), and Kung Pao Chicken (the best). They also have the best jja jang myun ever. The line can sometimes be long here, but they speak English, Korean, and Chinese (not sure which dialect).
  • Heung Rae Gak: 357 S. Western Ave #102. This is one of my recent faves. They have this super delicious house hot fried chicken. I don't know what it's called, but there's a picture of it on the wall, and you can point to it. They also have really good jja jang myun, and at the end of the meal, they even give you a little bit of frozen yogurt!
Bastardized Japanese Food
Koreatown also has some Koreanized versions of Japanese food. Koreatown sushi is okay, but unless you want to pay $100000 for dinner, most sushi places are just mediocre and give you 5x more rice than sushi. Instead I recommend:
  • Wako Donkasu: 3377 Wilshire Blvd # 112 & 2904 West Olympic Boulevard. I like this donkatsu better than donkatsu in Little Tokyo. The restaurant is clean, and I like they way they serve your food on a self-contained tray. The waiters are usually young guys who are bilingual. If you order donkatsu, they give you sesame seeds to crush with a little mortar and pestle - this is extremely enjoyable for me : ) BDF swears by their soba+donkatsu combo, but it's too much food for me. I like their pork donkatsu, but if you order chicken donkatsu, you get 2 slabs of chicken, instead of 1.
  • Restaurant inside of Hannam Chain Market: 2740 West Olympic Boulevard. know it's weird that I don't know the name of the restaurant, but I just know where it is. If you enter Hannam Chain, the restaurant is tucked inside the right side of the market. They have good udon and I grew up on their California rolls. Usually the same lady is always there, and I have never heard her speak anything except Korean or Spanglish to her employees, but I would assume she speaks English as well.
Shabu Shabu
Korean shabu shabu is different from Japanese shabu shabu. The Korean shabu shabu is cooked in a communal pot, but Japanese shabu shabu is individually pots. Actually Koreans call it "Genghis Khan," which actually sounds more like "jing-giss-khan." I like shabu shabu bc it's relatively healthy - meat, and the Korean version has a LOT of veggies. At the end, most places make you some fried rice on your grill, but you don't have to eat it... Shabu shabu is usually pretty pricey.
  • Seoul Garden: 1833 West Olympic Boulevard. This place is pretty straightforward, you order the # of portions you want, and they'll boil the water, put in the meat, and even add the veggies for you. I have seen a lot of non-Korean speakers here. This is also a classic for most Korean Americans.
  • Khan Shabu Shabu: 210 N Western Ave #210. I recently tried this place, and I really enjoyed it. You can get "Japanese" style, "Korean style," or a mix. I thought the quality of the food was really good, but again, pricey bc it's shabu shabu. The restaurant is new, clean, and trendy looking inside.
The classic. Do I even need to explain? Korean BBQ is so delicious and popular that I have to include several spots.
  • Pal Saik: 863 S Western Ave. This is my new fave, and it's so different from other places! They specialize in a variety of marinated sam gyup sahl (pork belly). The quality of the meat is very good, and the restaurant aesthetic is clean and minimalistic. I've written about this place before, and I stand by my original rave review. This place has TONS and TONS of non-Korean speakers every time I go, and ALL the waiters speak both English and Korean.
  • Road to Seoul: 1230 S Western Ave. There are a ton of all you can eat (AYCE) Korean BBQ restaurants in and around Koreatown. Really, so many! With a wide range in prices (and thus quality). I like Road to Seoul bc the prices are reasonable, and the meat is NOT Grade F---. This is my favorite AYCE restaurant for sure!
  • Kang Hodong Baekjeong: 3465 W 6th St. This is a fairly new restaurant that popped up in Chapman Plaza, a central eating/drinking spot in Koreatown. This place is always packed, and you will undeniably smell of delicious Korean BBQ after. They have a variety of meat (red, white, and some of the less common body parts..), and the quality of meat was good. They also had good service, but the tables can be a little crowded. I have only seen Korean Americans here. I've also written about it here before.
Bar Food
Drinking is a very popular pastime in Koreatown, but more on that later. Let's talk about the food. The bar food can be really good.
  • Crazy Hook: 3250 Wilshire Blvd. Crazy Hook is this huge bar that is pirate-themed. Don't ask, I don't know. But it's really popular among both Korean speakers and non-Korean speakers. The food here is really good all around, and they have good friend chicken especially.
  • Toe Bang: 3465 W 6th St inside Chapman Plaza. The. Corn. Cheese!!!!!! Also, their donkatsu is good. This is a semi-outdoor bar. If you beat the crowds, you can eat and bounce, or you can stay to eat and drink. A lot of their other foods are good too. I haven't seen a lot of non-Korean speakers here, but the waiters I've interacted with all speak English.
American Food
  • Mr. Pizza: 3881 Wilshire Blvd. This may be my favorite fatty food. I love pizza, but Korean pizza is the best! It doesn't leave that sick, greasy feeling after you're done, and they even serve pickles and peppers on the side (genius). The highlight of their menu is the Potato Gold pizza - the crust is stuffed with sweet potato. SO DELICIOUS!!!!! If you order takeout, you can receive a 20% discount.
  • Taylor's Steak House3361 W 8th St. Delicious prime rib and steaks! This restaurant has been around for long, way before Koreatown sprang up around it. 
  • Beer Belly: 532 S Western Ave. Beer Belly is a new gastropub in Koreatown. Their menu is very fried, but it's good if you're up for that. The space is small and it's always crowded!

If you don't want to deal with the wait, the language barrier, or choosing one place to agree upon, there are some good food courts in Koreatown.
  • Food Court at Koreatown Plaza aka KTP: 928 S Western Ave
  • Food Court at Koreatown Galleria: 3250 W Olympic Blvd

I'm sure I missed a ton of great places, but there's just SO MUCH FOOD! Happy eating!

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