Laura Clark thinks of Korean food as one of the most approachable Asian cuisines. After all, she says, at its core, Korean food centers on vegetables, meat and a little bit of rice. But to the uninitiated, some of the ingredients — soybean paste, daikon radish, sea kelp, fish cakes — can be intimidating.
“I was that Asian kid in elementary school who would bring Korean food to school for lunch, and kids would be like, ‘That smells bad, why are you eating that?’” Clark recalls. She remembers bringing kimbap, a Korean seaweed-rice roll similar to a California sushi roll, to her elementary school’s Culture Day. “Because it had seaweed, kids were throwing it away,” she says. “They thought it was gross, but it’s what I ate every day.”
Since immigration laws were relaxed in 1965, Asian immigrants have increasingly settled in Kansas. Today, three percent of the Kansas City population is comprised of Korean immigrants, with the largest concentration in Overland Park. That’s why Clark’s parents — her mother is from Cheongyang County, South Korea, and her father was born in South Dakota — chose to settle in the suburb in the late 1990s.
It’s no surprise, then, that Korean-owned restaurants and shops have established themselves in Overland Park.
Clark refers to the intersection of Metcalf Avenue and West 103rd Street — where Asian-French bakery Tous les Jours, a Korean-focused grocery store called Oriental Supermarket, Korean Gifts & Video and Korean restaurant Gangnam are located steps from one another — as “Little Korea.”
But while these joints are popular outposts for Korean-Americans, they are not as widely known among others. That’s a shame because our local Little Korea has a lot to offer, especially when it comes to food. From classic barbecue to bibimbap and japchae, we embarked on an Overland Park culinary tour of Korean classics that you should be taking advantage of.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ve separated them into “barbecue” and “bowls and rolls,” though Korean cuisine is far more varied and complex than we can cover here.
Korean barbecue is nothing like the sauce-heavy smoked chunks of meat Kansas Citians are accustomed to. That’s partly because the choose-your-own-adventure experience of dining at a Korean barbecue restaurant is so different: Most of these places have grills built into the tables, and servers present platters of raw meat that guests grill to their preference and at their own pace.
“The idea is that you’re getting really high quality meat, and some of it’s marinated and some of it’s not, but even the marinade tends to be really simple,” Clark says. “You don’t need to add anything or season it further. You just cook it and eat it.”
All Korean barbecue opens with a flight of small servings of side dishes — usually around a half-dozen, but sometimes more or less — called banchan (pronounced “bon-chon”). The items tend to differ but always include kimchi, Korea’s national dish of fermented cabbage. At barbecue restaurants, these side dishes will arrive well before the meat.
“You can judge a Korean restaurant by its banchan,” Clark says. “If the banchan isn’t fresh or plentiful or exciting, it’s not a good sign.”
As such, the first thing Clark did at Choga (6920 W. 105th St., Overland Park, Kan. 913-385-2151) was snap up a bite of fire-red kimchi between her chopsticks and pass judgement.
“It’s fresh,” she said, nodding in approval. “You can tell they make it in-house. It’s not super fermented, either. I prefer kimchi a little more sour than this.”
Choga’s kimchi was, indeed, on the mild side. The rest of the banchan was simple: pickled jalapenos, pickled onions, cold squares of fish cake (made from ground fish paste called surimi) and lettuce dressed in soy sauce. Hot steamed rice arrived, along with a trio of sauces: gochujang (red chili paste), miso paste and sesame oil. Then came a hot skillet full of corn topped with melted mozzarella cheese, along with kimchi soup and a bowl of super-light steamed egg souffle.
All this was included in Choga’s All-You-Can-Eat (AYCE) Korean barbecue price of $26.95 per person (not including tax and gratuity). Full table participation is required for AYCE, and servers let you order two types of meat per person per round. Guests have a maximum of two hours to consume their AYCE bounty, and if you don’t finish your meal, each person receives an additional $10 charge (this is to discourage waste).
There are 12 protein options available at the regular $26.95 price point, from LA galbi (LA-style bone-in short rib) and bulgogi (thin slices of beef usually marinated in some combination of Korean pear juice, soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil and other spices) to shrimp and beef tongue. For $34.95, guests can access the “premium” AYCE barbecue, which includes pork intestines, ribeye and marinated beef short rib. We stuck with the standard.
It can take Choga’s kitchen upwards of 20 minutes to slice and plate your first round, and when our heaping platters of pork belly, bulgogi, sliced brisket and daeji bulgogi (bulgogi that’s been additionally spiced with gochujang and red pepper paste) arrived, we needed refills on some of the banchan. And I needed a kimchi-jeon, a Korean pancake, because I am obsessed with its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink savory combination of kimchi, flour batter and vegetables. (We ordered Choga’s vegetarian kimchi-jeon, and while I was thoroughly pleased to encounter chunks of shrimp and scallops, other seafood-sensitive diners may want to exercise caution.)
I appointed Clark as our grillmaster because I had no idea what the hell I was doing.
“There’s some rules, but not a lot of rules,” she assured me as she laid fat slices of pork belly on the table grill with her chopsticks. “You wait until the meat is fully cooked to flip and cut it, but just like grilling anything, as long as you cook it all the way, you’re fine. That’s the most important thing.” She gestured to the cooking shears our server brought with our barbecue. “In Korea, you use your scissors as your knife.”
Our bulgogi was sliced as thin as prosciutto, and Clark cooked these delicate pieces for about 45 seconds, until there was just a slight char. She carefully arranged her portion into a pickled radish and topped it with kimchi. I popped mine in my mouth with little ceremony. The marinade made for a light, lip-smacking taste, not dissimilar to teriyaki. Soon, I was combining torn pieces of kimchi-jeon with banchan and hot chunks of beef and pork with rice and smothering everything in sauces and using the long silver spoon that accompanied my chopsticks to devour my dinner with
I was certain I was making some kind of faux pas, and I waited for Clark to tell me what a monster I was, but she just shrugged.
“All you have to do is eat it and enjoy it,” she said.
Three miles south on Metcalf, you’ll find a different barbecue experience at Chosun (12611 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, Kan. 913-339-9644, chosunkoreanbbqkc.com). Chosun does not offer AYCE, but don’t worry — there’s no chance of you leaving hungry after this grillfest.
Cuts are priced individually (starting at $16.99 for spicy pork tenderloin and up to $34.99 for a seafood combination) or offered in “combo specials” priced from $44.99 to $99.99 and designed, according to the menu, to feed groups of two to four people. Our server encouraged our group of three to go for the $59.99 platter of bulgogi, brisket, pork belly, ribeye and pork shoulder — and was soon watching us succumb to the meat sweats.
After you order, servers at Chosun will assume you know what you’re doing and leave you alone unless they’re clearing plates or refilling drinks. The menu is printed with grilling instructions — depending on the cut, Chosun recommends between and one and four minutes per piece — and should you want your hand held at any time, all you need to do is flip the little service switch at your table.
Do these combo platters offer a better deal than ordering each meat cut individually? Absolutely. Do you need double the people the menu and the server recommend to finish everything without hating yourself? Definitely. But Chosun does not charge a fee should you wish to take home your leftovers, so take heart and order without fear.
Bowls and rolls
Of course, there’s a lot more to Korean cuisine than barbecue.
Many Americans are familiar with bibimbap, a mix of rice with kimchi and other vegetables along with bulgogi and a fried egg on top — in other words, a perfectly approachable rice bowl.
At Sobahn (7800 Shawnee Mission Parkway, Overland Park, Kan. sobahnkc.com), bibimbap is one of the bestsellers. It’s a beautiful bowl, with bulgogi and different vegetables — pickled radishes, carrots, mushrooms, cucumber, bean sprouts, kale and gosari namul (a Korean herb also known as fernbrake) — arranged in neat little piles atop a bed of rice and finished with a perfectly cooked over-easy egg and sesame seeds.
Sobahn also offers dolsot bibimbap, which is the same combination of ingredients but served in a piping hot stone bowl that continues to cook the rice as you eat, so there’s extra texture as the rice
“Everyone has a different take on how to prepare bibimbap,” says Sharon Kwon, who owns Sobahn with her mother, Susanah Kwon, also the restaurant’s head chef. “It’s something that, if you’re at a Korean home, you’ll take all the ingredients you have in your fridge and throw them together. Rice is the staple, and gochujang brings everything together. Every Korean family has a different combination of vegetables, a different way of marinating the bulgogi.”
Gangnam (10326 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, Kan. 913-384-1688, ordergangnamop.com) also serves dolsot bibimbap. Chopped lettuce, cucumber, mushrooms, radishes, pickled onions and green onions fan out from richly seasoned bulgogi, and in the center of the dish, a joyful egg yolk waits to
Of course, not all bibimbap is created equal. KokoDak (14856 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, Kan. 913-730-8054), which opened this spring and specializes in Korean fried chicken, also offers signature Korean dishes. I uncovered approximately a tablespoon of bulgogi in KokoDak’s bibimbap and wasn’t a fan of the lifeless, hard fried egg that was flung like an afterthought into the bowl. I will return to KokoDak instead for their excellent yangnyeom half-bird ($13, whole birds for $25, wings and drumsticks for $10), where pieces of chicken are battered and double deep-fried and then smothered in a spicy, garlicky combination of soy sauce and gochujang.
You can think of japchae (“chop-jay”) as Korea’s answer to pad thai. Clark considers this dish the ultimate comfort food, where glass noodles (made from sweet potato starch) are stir-fried with assorted vegetables, bulgogi, soy sauce and sesame oil.
At Sobahn, these translucent noodles tangle elegantly into one another like tentacles and are studded with sliced mushrooms, onions, kale, carrots and chunks of beef. The only way to enjoy this plate more is to hunker down on the couch with it in front of a Big Little Lies marathon.
Gangnam’s japchae isn’t quite as stylish as the presentation at Sobahn, but it didn’t disappoint. The japchae at KokoDak could have used a boost of flavor — nothing that couldn’t be solved with an additional squeeze of gochujang — and is worth a try.
On the roll front, an enormously popular Korean street food is kimbap (“keem-bahp,” also called gimbap). It looks like a standard sushi roll and eats like it, too.
Some combination of ingredients — typically cucumber, kimchi, carrots, spinach and surimi (imitation crab) — are rolled up with rice inside roasted seaweed called kim. In Korea, this is a popular to-go meal or snack food.
“To me, kimbap was a picnic food my mom made for us, something we ate on road trips,” Kwon says. “Texture-wise, it’s an easy way to introduce kids to vegetables.”
Sobahn’s 12-piece kimbap features the usual surimi, carrots, radish and cucumber, plus kale and purple cabbage for extra crunch.
At Oriental Supermarket (10336 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, Kan. 913-341-3345), you can grab a 20-piece kimbap packed with spinach, carrots, pickled radish, cucumber, fish cake and egg for $7. Spam is also a common kimbap ingredient; Clark fondly recalls her mother preparing kimbap with Oscar Meyer weiners.
The Korean community in Overland Park is tight-knit, Kwon says, and still growing. There’s a lot that’s missing — Koreatown here can’t compete with the diverse offerings of K-Towns in L.A. or New York. But in the decade Sobahn has been open, Kwon has watched the food culture in the metro shift.
“There are so many more Korean restaurants opening up,” she says. “We’re also seeing different Korean ingredients popping up in other American restaurants. People are curious, their palates are expanding, they want to try different things. It’s exciting to be a part of that, and it’s inspiring on our end to to think of new ways to showcase our culture and our food to a bigger audience while still staying true to who we are.”