Foodie contributor Julia Wayne eats her way through some of Seattle's best Korean restaurants. Below, you'll find our picks, divvied up neighborhood by neighborhood, plus a glossary of Korean terms to help you along your delicious way.
Stocked with napa cabbage kimchi, aged cabbage, pickled daikon, water kimchi and several other varieties of kimchi, the tiny Ballard restaurant features tons of preparations to cook or snack on at home. Dine in at one of the half-dozen tables tucked against one wall, and enjoy a steaming pot of kimchi ramen with tofu, or soondubu with kimchi and pork or seafood, served with rotating banchan, such as bean sprouts and gamjajorim (a soy-sauce marinated potato). Try the kimchi house sandwich, with meat, sautéed kimchi and slaw on a toasted roll, or kimchi fries for a twist on the familiar. Lunch Sat., dinner Tue.–Sat. 5809 24th Ave. NW; 206.784.5322; kimchihouseseattle.com
The hae mul pa-jun, a deep-fried seafood pancake, is a perfect blend of crunchy texture and briny flavor. Capitol Hill residents love the convenience of having their very own taste of Korea tucked into a Broadway mini-mall that has seen more than its share of restaurants come and go over the years. Perhaps because of the restaurant’s location in the center of a neighborhood with a dearth of Korean cuisine, flavors skew less spicy than some traditional restaurants, and a handful of tables inside give neighborhood couples with a few minutes to spare a chance to hang, get refills on the banchan and enjoy the brothy sulang tang while it’s boiling hot. Lunch and dinner daily (closed fourth Wednesday of the month). 219 Broadway, Suite 7; 206.323.4472
Long regarded as one of the best Korean restaurants in the state by Asian-food fans, this nondescript hole-in-the-wall lives up to its reputation. Bu dae jigae—the giant Korean hot pot with ham, meatballs, tofu, pork, beef and rice cakes—is fun to cook at the table with a group. Two seafood dishes receive endless praise: the seafood pancake packed with squid, and thick, creamy rice noodles with mussels, squid, shrimp and veggies. The soft tofu soup draws loyal fans: Order the regular size for one or two people; a huge bowl serves three or four. Lunch and dinner daily. 23830 Highway 99, No. 114; 425.775.8196; hosoonyitofu.us
Located inside the Boo Han Market (a grocery store stocked with deli items such as seafood pancakes, banchan and more to grab and go if you can’t sit and stay), this establishment draws adventurous food lovers for the soon dae: blood sausage that also contains rice or noodles, which temper the offal flavor, served with salt. Don’t leave without grabbing a crunchy, savory fish-shaped waffle, fried and stuffed with red bean paste. Lunch and dinner Tue.–Sat. 22618 Highway 99, Suite 115; 425.776.7290
BCD Tofu House
Informal to the core, this strip-mall stop welcomes diners with lunchroom-style plastic cups of barley tea. BCD Tofu House, which is almost always open until about 3 a.m. or later, has some of the best sundubu around (try the ham and sausage). The spice level can be off the charts if that’s your style. The spicy raw crab is worth the drive alone, with its tender texture and intense flavors. The barbecue entrées are served sizzling (no tables inlaid with grills here) and come with banchan and freshly fried yellow croaker fish for all. After doling out the purplish rice (colored from the mix of grains) from a stone pot to diners, servers fill the empty cavity with water to make a tea with the remaining flecks and flavors. Mon.–Thu. 9 a.m.–3 a.m., Sun. 9 a.m.–4 a.m. 22511 Highway 99, 425.670.6757; also in Lynnwood, 3301 184th St. SW, 425.776.8001; bcdtofu.com
Stars in the Sky
Three words: Korean fried chicken. That’s all you need to know to enjoy your time in this alternate universe that perfectly combines karaoke, soju and fried perfection. Giant platters of local chicken are available straight up as coated, crispy chunks with dips on the side, or tossed with one of three sauces (Asian garlic sweet, sweet and spicy or extra spicy). This is a gateway food for Korean foodaphobes, as the totally approachable drinking-pal-style dish is served with cabbage salad (made with Kewpie mayo and ketchup, no joke) and pickled daikon. The menu is full of novelties, such as “pizza corn cheese,” which is basically canned corn tossed with peppers, onions and tomato sauce and topped with cheese. Stick to the fried chicken, drink some Chamisul soju, and let the sounds of muffled singing wash over you. Mon.–Sat. 5 p.m.–2 a.m., Sun. 3 p.m.–midnight. 23830 Highway 99, Suite 121; 425.582.8802; starsintheskywa.com
Cho Dang Tofu
Tucked behind a Denny’s, Cho Dang offers the usual Korean barbecue dishes done well, with the galbi and beef bulgogi running the show. But it’s the soft tofu soup, with silky chunks of the stuff filling big stoneware bowls, that people rave about most at this fake-marble-tabled town favorite. The spicy, vinegary flavor of the broth is best with seafood or pork to add a little extra texture and interest, or try the fish roe for a twist. Lunch and dinner daily. 2200 S 320th St., Suite B201, 253.839.2459; also in Lynnwood, 17424 Highway 99, Suite 107, 425.918.1508; and Lakewood, 9701 S Tacoma Way, No. 101, 253.682.1968
Traditional Korean Beef Soup
When the weather gets chilly, folks flock to this restaurant with a straightforward name (it’s the English translation of the restaurant’s name) for bowls of cloudy sullung tang. Add some green onions, chiles, salt, and don’t hold back on the kimchi to achieve the maximum taste sensation. The dogani (knee bones), tendon and cartilage are the favorite centerpieces for the soup at this sizable, dark-wood, booth-dominated restaurant. Leave room for the incredible pot stickers and seafood pancake. Daily 8 a.m.–10 p.m. 31248 Pacific Highway S, Suite E, 253.946.1101; also in Edmonds, 22921 Highway 99, 425.977.2929
A newcomer to the grid of great restaurants in the I.D. (Fuji Bakery is next door), this small, booth-furnished space, around the corner from Thai Curry Simple, is best for the simple dishes, as its minimalistic interior and sparse service might indicate. The spicy pork bulgogi brings just the right amount of heat, and the hot stone bi bim bap has the perfect balance of meat, veggies and rice. The meal begins with a grilled croaker, and the crunchy little fish is the perfect way to start things off, since the grilled meat entrées aren’t gigantic. The dipping sauce served with the seafood pancake is salty and spicy in the perfect proportion; see if you can wrangle an extra one so you don’t have to share. Lunch and dinner Mon.–Sat. 502 S King St.; 206.682.1300
Jang Soo Tofu Restaurant
Big, sizzling platters of Korean barbecue scent this restaurant (which is located in a food mall—seriously, the space is filled with restaurants, with the occasional cell phone store tucked in for good measure) with their mouthwatering smells, matched by savory flavors. Both the (octopus) nak ji dol sat bipbimbap, with sesame leaves and crispy rice, and the superflavorful kalbi platter are not to be missed. Lunch and dinner daily. 18230 E Valley Highway, No. 166; 425.251.8638
Sam Oh Jung
There are a few dishes that star on the menu at Sam Oh Jung, and you’ve likely never had them before. For a cold take on noodle soup, try the bibim nengmyun, a gochujang (chili paste) noodle and vegetable bowl. The ganjang gaejang—blue crab butter and roe fermented in soy sauce and served raw—will blow your mind, and is served as part of a combo with soup and sides. Grab a cup of milk coffee from an automatic coffee machine and just soak it all in at this casual, authentic joint. Lunch and dinner Mon.–Sat. 17425 Highway 99; 425.745.3535
Original Sul Lung Tang
Hear the foodie siren call: all you can eat (after 4 p.m.). Yeah, you read that right. The barbecue during happy hour (4–9 p.m.) is well known among penny-pinching college kids, meat eaters there to prove a point, and spice lovers who can’t get enough of the endless supply of fabulous meat, which is grilled in the tables. (Pro tip: If you don’t eat all the food you order, there’s an extra charge, so order wisely.) The beef bulgogi is the star, with the perfect mix of sweet and salty flavors. The namesake sul lung tang, also very popular, comes out piping hot, with plenty of sides to drop in to spice up the mild flavors. Breakfast, lunch dinner Tue.–Sun. 19400 36th Ave. W, No. 102; 425.672.2650
Three cheers for galbi tang and eun-dae-goo jjorim. Confused? Well, most of the menu items and the specials at this brightly lit, pale-wooded and cheerfully painted spot are in Korean, so you might want to do your homework before heading in. The first item mentioned, galbi tang, is a soup made with short ribs, daikon and mild broth. The eun-dae-goo jjorim is a braised cod fish stew in a spicy broth that you’ll want to write home about. Lunch and dinner daily. 1120 164th St. SW; 425.741.7171
Feeling fishy? Grab the grilled mackerel or steamed cod fish jorim with spicy sauce and tofu at this barbecue-focused spot, with its long, grill-inlaid tables great for fitting in a half-dozen of your closest friends. Tons of banchan come your way, and the flavors of the ever-fresh rotating sides complement the spicy, sweet and salty flavors of the Korean classics they do so well here. The variety platter of meat, with multiple pork parts and beef, is generous. Dip the hot pieces in ssamjang paste—a thick sauce made with chili paste, fermented bean paste, sesame oil and other ingredients—wrap them in a lettuce leaf, and you’re doing it right. Lunch and dinner daily. 15004 Highway 99; 425.787.6484
Olympus Day Spa
Healthy traditional dishes such as japchae and soondubu mingle with variations on Korean barbecued chicken (stir-fried with onions and green onions) at this restaurant, which is located within a women-only day spa (sorry, fellas). You’ll find clients dining between services all day and into the night while dressed in robes and shower caps. The fried dumplings and Olympus Spa wrap are both delicious; the latter features sliced cucumbers, bell peppers, sliced fried egg, carrots, enoki mushrooms, pickled radish and burdock root, with a side of rice and a choice of meat (get the beef) or tofu to roll into lettuce wraps. Banchan include kimchi, sweet and hard black beans, coleslaw, pickled daikon, veggie fritters and broccoli in red bean paste. (Note: There are no free refills on side dishes, unlike other Korean restaurants.) Lunch and dinner Mon.–Sat. 3815 196th St. SW, No. 160; 425.697.3000; olympusspa.com
Korean Tofu House
Plentiful portions and a solid menu mean this bustling spot is nearly always jam-packed with students who want to eat amazing food on the cheap. The kalbi platter and bulgogi hot pot are both flavorful picks, and the soondubu with an egg cracked into it is the best. The banchan—which include green onion pancake, soy potatoes, kimchi, fish cake and bean sprouts—are refilled by helpful servers who somehow manage to be in all places at once. Lunch and dinner daily. 4142 Brooklyn Ave. NE; 206.632.3119
The name of this restaurant is Japanese for
“bon appetit,” and the menu features a mix of Hawaiian, Korean and Japanese dishes, including a handful of amazing Korean entrées. The octopus, stir-fried vegetables and noodles comprise a gigantic bowl of textural sensations. A generous order of kalbi short ribs is meant to be shared, and a side of rice with a fried egg should be highlighted with the kimchi, which is made by the owner’s mom. The room is furnished with a long bench on one side and a bar on the other, with several tables in between, and caters to college kids and neighborhood locals who want to watch sports on one of the flat-screen TVs while snacking. Lunch and dinner daily. 4743 Brooklyn Ave. NE; 206.659.0722
Old Village Korean Bistro
Fresh galbi and seafood, including oysters, squid, scallops and more ready to cook at your table at Old Village Korean Bistro in Shoreline
Tables inset with grills are constantly being lit for diners cooking hot pot and barbecue in private booths. While prices here skew a little higher than at many Korean restaurants, the meats (try the pork belly and pork bulgogi) are a better quality than most. The sundubu with pork and kimchi is served in a huge stone pot big enough to share (or make another meal when you give up), and banchan are refilled continuously. Variety seekers should come in for lunch combos with cold noodles, tofu soup or soy paste soup, or a lunch box with tempura, salad and sides. The yook gae jang (spicy beef brisket soup) is to die for, and the Korean bistro special meal is giant and perfect for a splurge. Lunch and dinner daily. 15200 Aurora Ave. N; 206.365.6679; oldvillagekoreanbbq.com
KOREAN WITH A TWIST
Chan Tucked in an alley behind Pike Place Market, Chan offers an upscale, modern take on Korean food that is well delivered. The ssam, with spicy pork and tender, fried little rice cakes as well as lettuce and ssamjang, is crazy good, as is the crispy seafood pancake with shrimp, calamari, jalapeños and a delicious savory dipping sauce. The hot skillet bibimbap and bulgogi sliders are great tastes of tradition, and the happy hour offers awesome deals on a ton of small plates. Dinner Tue.–Sat. Pike Place Market, 86 Pine St.; 206.443.5443; chanseattle.com
Joule The menu at this Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang hot spot is more about Korean flavors than Korean food. Spicy rice cake gets a twist with chorizo, white stuffed kimchi is pungent and bold, and the kalbi short rib steak with grilled kimchi is the most obvious riff on Korean barbecue. Dinner daily. Fremont/Wallingford, 3506 Stone Way N; 206.632.5685; joulerestaurant.com
Marination Station Korean and Hawaiian cuisines fuse on this uberpopular menu of portable foods. Kalbi and spicy pork tacos are incredibly tasty as is the kimchi rice bowl with your choice of meat (get the pork, trust us) and a fried egg. The food was made famous by one of the city’s first food trucks, and the owners now have two successful brick-and-mortar locations: Marination Station on a Capitol Hill rooftop and Marination Ma Kai in West Seattle (whose menu stretches into new territory with items such as fish and chips). Lunch and dinner daily. Capitol Hill, 1412 Harvard Ave.; 206.325.8226; marinationmobile.com
Revel The second of Chirchi and Yang’s restaurants is known for its universally adored kimchi pork belly pancake and short rib rice bowls, and for good reason. The pancake has a crispy exterior and the soft texture of mung bean batter within, with the pork’s fattiness and the kimchi’s vinegary flavor coming through. It all mingles nicely with the sauces served on the side. Fermented bean paste, chili paste, flavored soy sauce and bird’s eye-chile-studded vinegar come in circular containers on the side with nearly all orders. (Pro tip: Feel free to request them if they don’t.) The short rib rice bowl, with pickled daikon, tender, superflavorful steak, and mustard greens, and topped with a soy-sauce marinated egg yolk, benefits from a dollop of gochujang. Dinner daily. Fremont, 403 N 36th St.; 206.547.2040; revelseattle.com
Trove The third, and most ambitious, restaurant from the Revel/Joule team, and which features a showstopping Korean grill (and a handmade noodle counter, ice cream window and bar), is set to open in the Greenus Building on Capitol Hill this fall. Expect cuisine inspired by Korean barbecue, including tabletop grills. The treasure trove of cuisine promises the return of big flavors.
A GLOSSARY OF KOREAN TERMS
Spellings vary by restaurant. For each listing, we used the spelling that the restaurant uses and prints on the menu.
BANCHAN (also on menus as ban chan, panch’an): Side dishes that come with most Korean dishes at most Korean restaurants, such as kimchi cabbage (see definition below), kimchi daikon radish, marinated or fried tofu, chili-sauce-topped broccoli, strips of fish cake, soy potatoes (gamjajorim), fermented or marinated bean sprouts and green onion pancake.
BIBIMBAP (also on menus as bi bim bap, bi bim bop, bibpumbap): Mixed rice topped with vegetables, meat, sauces and often an egg. Can be served in a regular ceramic or metal bowl, or in a hot stone pot. The stone pot causes the rice on the bottom to crisp as the dish is eaten.
BULGOGI Grilled beef, especially sirloin, marinated with soy sauce and other spices and oils to increase tenderness and flavor. Generally grilled over an open flame, it is also sometimes made with pork (dwaeji bulgogi) or chicken (dak bulgogi).
GALBI (also on menus as kalbi, galbi gui, sogalbi, soegalbi, bulgalbi, dak galbi, dwaeji galbi): One of the most popular Korean barbecued meats, these beef short ribs are marinated with soy sauce, garlic and sugar to add flavor and tenderize the cut. Sometimes, sesame oil or chili paste is added to the mix. Often served with lettuce or other leafy greens and rice for wraps.
HOT POT Similar to its preparation in other Asian cuisines, this dish is composed of thinly sliced meat and other ingredients cooked in hot broth at the table by the diner.
KIMCHI (also on menus as kimchee, kim chi): Korea’s national dish, kimchi consists of fermented vegetables that become spicy, sour and vinegary during preparation. Usually made with napa cabbage, but also other types of cabbage, daikon radish, cucumber, scallions and, more rarely, kale.
KIMCHI JJIGAE (also on menus as kimchi chigae): Similar to and sometimes used interchangeably with sundubu (see definition below), jjigae is a stew made with vegetables and a murky broth, sometimes including tofu and meat.
SEOLLEONGTANG (also on menus as sulung tang, sulang tang, sul lung tang, sullung tang or seonnongtang): Similar to a consommé, this traditional South Korean dish is made from a broth of ox (traditionally) or boiled beef parts, cooked on a low heat all day until the broth becomes cloudy. Rice or rice noodles are served on the side, as well as seasoning agents such as salt, pepper, green onions and chiles. Meat may be served alongside to add in or already in the broth.
SOJU: A clear spirit traditionally made from rice, often compared to vodka.
Sundubu jjigae (also appears as soondubu, soon tofu): Sundubu means silky tofu, but is also used on menus to describe a silky tofu stew. This popular stew is served piping hot in a stone pot or metal bowl, and is most often made with kimchi, and served with the option of seafood, vegetables, pork or beef and rice.
Additional research by Han Gyuri