By Richard Foss (Richard(at)RichardFoss.com)
Korean restaurants have entered the culinary mainstream in California, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at L.A.’s west side. We have one high-style place on Lincoln and funky lunch counters with limited menus, but almost nothing in between. The exception lies in a modest strip mall on National Boulevard: a restaurant that was formerly called Tofuya but recently changed its name to Galbi King.
Galbi King is evidently popular, and when we visited on a weekday evening there were diners at almost every table. The décor is spartan and a bit worn, but the place was clean and the welcome friendly. At many Korean restaurants the service verges on brusque, but at Galbi King our cheerful server automatically started explaining the various choices, a sign that they have welcomed many newcomers to the cuisine.
Though a substantial selection is available, we ordered the all-you-can-eat special for $16.95, as had most tables around us. This comes with the banchan — small plates of fresh and pickled salads that accompany every meal — plus soup, hot egg custard or stone-pot rice, and our choice of meats for the gas grill built into our table.
The banchan arrived immediately: potato salad, tofu strips with bell pepper and onion in mild red pepper sauce, glass noodles with sesame, cabbage kimchi, marinated bean sprouts, and Western-style salad with lettuce and cabbage. Most of the items that were usually spicy were muted compared to the version I get in Korean neighborhoods, but the flavors were still fresh and lively.
There is a choice of nine different meats on the barbecue special, and we started with thin-sliced bulgogi beef and the boneless marinated short ribs called galbi that the restaurant is named after. The portion of both meats was substantial, and we resolved to ask for half-portions afterward so we could try more things. When we did, our server laughed — he said the fellow in the kitchen who was arranging portions that evening is a big eater and thinks everybody else is too.
We spread the bulgogi on the grill to start cooking just as our soups arrived. Several are offered, and I chose tofu with meat and seafood while my brother selected Korean-style miso. Both came in little ceramic cauldrons boiling furiously, the flavorful broths richly spicy, and were the high point of the meal. This restaurant specialized in spicy tofu soup before the name change and they still make it exceptionally well.
The clay pots kept those soups hot so we could turn our attention to the meat as soon as it was done, which was fast with the thin bulgogi. Like the short ribs, the bulgogi had been marinated in a sauce that is traditionally made with soy sauce, pear juice, red pepper, garlic and other spices. (The sugars in the sauce caramelize on the grill, leading to the distinctive sweet and smoky flavor of Korean barbecue.) The version here was mild and sweet, and since we like things a bit hotter we asked for some gochujang, the popular spicy bean paste condiment. This perked things up quite a bit — I’d bet on gochujang to go mainstream, since it gives so much tangy character to both meat and vegetable dishes.
We liked the galbi, though it would have been better if served bone-in, as the roasting marrow adds to the flavor of the meat. Both Koreans and Americans sometimes prefer convenience to gnawing meat from bones, so the restaurant’s decision isn’t unusual. We continued with spicy chicken and the oddly named “choice beef short plate,” which turned out to be paper-thin slices of brisket. We tried cooking this like bacon but it stuck to the grill, and after experimentation we realized that it was best cooked all at once and turned frequently. The texture was similar to bacon but distinctly beefy, and it went very well with the salted sesame oil provided for dipping.
Of the dishes we tried, the spicy chicken had the most seasoning, the sauce peppery but not blistering hot, and we enjoyed it with bites of the Western-style salad. We also cooled down with sips of soju, a rice wine with a clean, fresh taste that is something like low-alcohol vodka. I wondered about the frog on the bottle’s label and found from the company’s website that the picture has been treated to be white when the bottle is warm and blue when the soju is cold enough to drink. It was blue the night we were there, and we savored the crisp flavor.
Our dinner for two, with two bottles of soju, was under $60 — a very modest price. Galbi King is a good entry-level Korean restaurant that executes favorite items well and serves as a good introduction to the cuisine. Connoisseurs might head for K-town or to places that charge much more, but here they can sample one of the world’s great cuisines in a welcoming environment.
Galbi King is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Beer, wine and soju served; wheelchair access OK; parking lot in rear. Galbi King
11267 National Blvd., Mar Vista (310) 477-6075