When you go to a Korean restaurant, do you know what to order? I sure as hell didn't before meeting Danny, my lovely boyfriend of six-going-on-seven years.
Having dated the same Korean-American gent for that long, all of my non-Korean friends/family/coworkers/mail carriers/grocers/etc. have taken to asking me about what they should order at Kum Gang San. I'm honored that they put their dinner in my hands, but I'm bummed that it has to be so difficult. Unless you're at one of the Korean taco trucks, and your choice is between beef, chicken or pork, ordering is a complicated, pages-long task. Even Dan often wonders aloud about what the hell a "kimchi casserole" might be.
So I put together this little digest for ordering at a Korean restaurant. All of these dishes will be available at your average spot in Koreatown and will hit on the major Korean flavors. Together, they add up to a great "starter kit" for getting to know Korean food. Dan was even kind enough to look it over, giving it his official stamp of approval.
If you want to play it safe order some bimbimbap (비빔밥). Now, not to scare you, but there are a few kinds of bimbimbap. The best kind comes in a dolsot (돌솥) which means "stone pot." The pot will come out sizzling. Rice will be at the bottom, covered in a bunch of different veggies-- spinach, bean sprouts, marinated roots, julienned cucumber and more. You can order it vegetarian or with some thinly sliced beef on the top. It will probably also have a raw egg cracked over the top, which will cook as you pour your gochujang (고추장, red pepper paste) over everything and start mixing! The sizzling pot will make the rice on the bottom crispy, the favorite part for most Koreans. Also, this dish is commonly eaten with a spoon; good news if you're uneasy with chopsticks!
If you insist on getting barbecue, order jaeyook gui (제육구이, pork) or bulgogi (불고기, beef). Kalbi (갈비, beef short ribs) will probably be first on the menu, but will also be super expensive. Order bulgogi instead, which has a very similar marinade and flavor. Once grilled, wrap the meat in the lettuce leaves that a server will likely bring to the table. My personal favorite barbecued meat is jaeyook gui, a marinated sweet and spicy pork that will caramelize on the grill. But know that these are all pretty pricey, and will likely be small servings. I say order something different and make your own marinades at home.
If it's cold outside, order soondooboo jjigae (순두부찌개). I'm a sucker for any Korean soup/stew, but this one is probably my favorite. Note that "jjigae" indicates a stew, so there will probably be a pretty lengthy list of these on the menu. Soondooboo jjigae is defined by the soondooboo, or silky soft tofu, that fills the soup bowl. You'll also have a few whole prawns (including heads; don't be intimidated!), clams, sliced green onions and a raw egg cracked over the top. It'll be served with a small side of rice. Rather than dive right into the hot soup (which is served in a dolsot, still boiling), fill your spoon with rice and lower it to the surface of the soup. Soak up just a little bit of of the spicy broth into the rice and repeat until the rest of the soup is cool enough to eat. This is a pretty spicy dish, but you'll get used to it after a few tries!
If it's hot outside, order naengmyun (냉면). There are few dishes that hit the spot like naengmyun. Naengmyun is to a hot day as a greasy burger is to a night of drinking. Buckwheat noodles will arrive in a chilled metal bowl, sitting in an icy, delicate and tangy broth. The noodles will be topped with a garnish of some julienned cucumber, sometimes a bit of Asian pear, half of a hard boiled egg and/or some boiled and chilled beef. The noodles are super long, so the server will offer to cut them into smaller pieces with kitchen scissors. Accept the offer. Then, they'll set down a bottle of mustard (what!? wacky!). Squeeze a teaspoon or so in and stir. It'll add an extra earthy tang that really ties the dish together.
If you're ordering for a crowd, I like to order bokeum bap (볶음밥), pajeon (파전), mandoo (만두) and one of the meats mentioned above (or a whole grilled fish if you feel confident breaking that down!). Bokeum bap is a crowd-pleasing fried rice dish. Similar to Chinese fried rice, bokeum bap will be less salty and you'll have the option to choose your protein. Pajeon is a savory pancake that's easy to share. I love the version with scallions and assorted seafood, but you can't really go wrong. Mandoo are Korean dumplings. You can generally order them fried or steamed.
And don't forget to try all your panchan (반찬)! Often referred to as "Korean side dishes," these little bites will include kimchi and much more. Always different depending on the season or restaurant, your panchan is included with your meal. Eat 'em up quick, and they might bring over a round two!