Context. It’s something that’s so easily forgotten by those who review upon a whim. Not that this well-reviewed establishment is in need of any defense. Far from it. While not perfect, this restaurant has managed to do well by focusing on the basics, namely, quality of food and service. It’s not easy for a restaurant to survive in LA's Koreatown. Places come and go all the time, subject to an especially capricious, savvy, and hard-to-please segment of the dining public: USC students.
All jesting aside however, the intensity of the competition is no joke — one year some lucky establishment will be in the limelight, and the next, some trendier, bigger, better-priced competitor with higher-quality meat will steal it away. While it’s easy to get overwhelmed by choices in an ever-changing and ever-expanding Koreatown, this place is a bastion of certainty.
At first, it seems like the same tired old story. It has the same mandatory “valet” parking arrangement, has the same booth seating arrangement, and the same polite, yet inevitably detached, front-of-house as its competitors. The only distinguishing characteristic is that it’s pricier. But, it is actually a complete contrast to its rambunctious AYCE (that’s all-you-can-eat) competitors. Patrons enter through a courtyard graced with a water fountain and outdoor tables, leading into a minimalist dining space, where oddly, everything is either stainless steel or white. It feels like dining in a kitchen in a very modern house. More importantly, however, there isn’t a huge crowd, and, there’s never a sense of being rushed during the meal. The atmosphere, being slightly more upscale, might fool skeptical diners into thinking that this place is just a watered-down imitator purporting to be Korean. It’s hardly a hole-in-the-wall, after all. Fortunately, the skeptics are proven wrong.
Once at your table, the experience begins. A dizzying array of Banchan is set out before you, a mix of the expected and the unexpected. There’s kimchi, of course, sweet pickled daikon, and a salad of lettuce and scallions dressed with sesame oil, but also some things that are harder to find such as the marinated fish cake with bell pepper, the pickled cucumber in chili, or my personal favorite, the par-boiled, chilled bean sprouts.
All of these shared little bites are meant to be paired with the showpiece of the evening, the barbecued meat. The must-haves are the bulgogi, and the namesake chosun galbee, short ribs in the special house marinade. The meat arrives at the table raw, and this is where Chosun sets itself apart — the meat is well-marbled and bright red, and nothing is frozen. All you have to do is sit back and watch while the microphoned wait staff perform all the cooking on a grill set in the middle of the table. Meat portions can be on the smallish side though, so it’s best to order some additional side dishes as well, such as the jap chae, a side dish of cellophane noodles made from sweet potato flour — springy like telephone cords (but tastier) and stir-fried with soy, mixed vegetables, and beef (see inset photo).
If you have engagements afterwards which don’t involve smelling like a barbeque, however enticing the aroma is, there are outdoor tables as well. Don’t get lulled too much into the soju-induced dinner conversation that ensues though; occasionally, you’ll need to keep an eye on the meat and flip it, to keep the sugar-based marinade from burning. It is a full-service Korean restaurant, but it is also a relatively large, and only adequately staffed one.
Chosun Galbee isn’t the type of place most people would visit on a regular basis. For friends who want to catch-up in the middle of the week in a more casual setting, there’s Road to Seoul. For purists who insist on charcoal and dark, smoke-filled rooms, there’s the ironically (or appropriately) named Soot Bull Jeep. And for those who enjoy struggling with street parking, there’s Gui Rim. But, if you’ve got guests from out of town, and you want to impress them, Korean food in LA still doesn’t get much better than this.