Once among the hardest of cuisines to find, Korean food has become surprisingly commonplace in Columbus. Especially on the Northwest side of town, stretches once best known for fast food—Bethel and Henderson roads in particular—are now rife with Korean restaurants and markets. There’s even a Korean food truck, Ajumama, roaming the streets.
It’s not hard to understand why. Not only has the city’s Korean population grown significantly, but the cuisine is varied enough to appeal to most everyone. At restaurants, the clientele is generally quite diverse, made up of people of all ethnic backgrounds.
From barbecue, to comfort-foody soups and stews, to sinus-shaking spicy dishes, there’s a Korean dish suitable for everyone, from the most adventurous eater to the most timid.
First-timers are often surprised when a procession of anywhere from four to nine small metal bowls filled with a variety of small bites arrives at the table. Worry not—they’re complimentary, and as a group they’re called banchan.
The contents vary from restaurant to restaurant and even day to day (and you don’t get to choose what you get), but the goal is to provide a wide range of flavors and textures. The one thing you can count on is at least one kimchi dish.
Kimchi is nothing short of a matter of Korean national pride. It’s spiced, seasoned and pickled vegetables (usually cabbage, but sometimes radish, cucumbers or scallions). It’s similar to sauerkraut, but heavily seasoned and slightly less fermented. Moderately spicy (save for the chili-free white versions) and pungent, it’s eaten both as a stand-alone dish and used in a large number of other dishes.
Read on for more of what to expect.
For those new to Korean cuisine
Korean-style barbecue is an excellent choice for the spice-averse palate. Some restaurants prepare the grilled meat in the kitchen and present it at the table on a sizzling cast-iron pan, while others have gas grills in the tables and allow customers varying degrees of participation in the preparation itself.
Some of the more popular barbecue items include kalbi (marinated beef short rib), bulgogi (marinated beef, sliced ribbon-thin) and samgyupsal (pork belly).
Barbecue dishes, particularly at the “grill-in-table” restaurants, generally come with a sauce called ssamjang and a basket or two of lettuce leaves. Once the meat comes off the grill, you can portion some into a lettuce leaf, add sauce and eat it like a wrap. This method of eating BBQ, called ssam, is how it’s done at San-Su, and the kalbi there is a do-not-miss.
Bibimbap is another crowd pleaser. It’s an artfully arranged composition of sauteed and seasoned vegetables, sliced beef and occasionally an egg, all atop a bowl of white rice. Traditionally, it’s doused in a mildly spicy sauce called gochujang and mixed thoroughly before eating.
Bibimbap can be ordered vegetarian, and it’s especially great when ordered dolsot—served in a scalding hot stone bowl coated with sesame oil that browns and crisps the rice on the bottom. Silla’s version is a textbook example of this dish.
Korean cuisine boasts myriad noodle dishes, and none is more well-known than japchae. Made with clear sweet potato noodles (which don’t taste particularly like sweet potato), japchae comes together with a variety of vegetables—and occasionally meats or seafood—stir-fried in soy sauce, sesame oil and garlic. It’s an easy dish to love; Kaya’s version is among the best, and the newly opened Hae-Paul’s also makes a great rendition for those Downtown.
For the adventurous eater
For those seeking a culinary challenge, ojingeo bokkeum (also called squid bokkeum) should fit the bill. It’s a spicy squid stir-fry, seasoned with spicy gochujang sauce and an extra dose of chili flakes. This fiery, slightly sweet and deeply savory meal is the go-to dish for many hardcore foodies at the restaurant within the market called Arirang.
Hot in every sense, sundubu jjigae makes for a great winter meal. It arrives at the table as a (literally) boiling stew—various types of seafood, tofu, vegetables and mushrooms in a spicy gochujang-flavored broth. As a finishing touch, a raw egg is cracked on top, the heat cooking it quickly. This dish is found in most Korean restaurants, and Min-Ga does a very nice job with it.
For something sweet
Relative to other cuisines, desserts are a less integral part of the Korean dining experience. Nonetheless, sweets are available and often worth trying.
Perhaps the most widely known is bingsu, and with good reason—audacious in size and visually stunning, it’s truly something to behold. A large bowl of shaved ice is topped with a wide variety of treats: fresh fruits, syrups, ice creams, sweet adzuki beans and more. The exact recipe can differ widely—Tea Zone’s version is particularly harmonious—but each one is a guaranteed adventure in varying flavors and textures.
If that sounds a bit overwhelming, seek out the Ajumama food truck for their addictive hodduk, small pancakes filled with cinnamon sugar and walnuts and grilled to order.
WHAT TO EXPECT
While restaurants will usually bring forks and knives upon request, metal chopsticks and a spoon (traditionally used for rice) are the utensils of choice.
The mood may vary…
Lots of Korean restaurants have a serene atmosphere. Others, not so much—an ignored corner of the restaurant can break out into a cacophony of karaoke without notice, or, upon entry, you may find folk singers strumming away on a stage in front of a large projection screen featuring college football.
…but the quality will not
No matter where you find yourself, you’ll almost certainly have an edifying culinary experience. Korean restaurants have a surprisingly consistent level of quality, and any dish that may be preferable at one restaurant is, at least by our palates, only preferable by a small margin.
Bethia Woolf, owner of Columbus Food Adventures, blogs at alteatscolumbus.com