Seongbukdong is in the same strip mall as Dan Sung Sa and still stands out.
Seongbukdong has only been running in Los Angeles since 2005, but thanks to word of mouth and a litany of reviews from Korean publications, Young-hee Shon’s restaurant has become a popular Koreatown dining destination.
The Korean restaurant is named for a wealthy area of Seoul, home to the Presidential Palace. Given the restaurant’s elite provenance, the strip mall space was seemingly simple, with framed Korean art and the top of a single wall lined with tiles, like a rural rooftop.
Complimentary dishes called banchan weren’t as elaborate as at other restaurants in Koreatown, but they were all competently prepared. Counterclockwise from top right, you’ll find chile-soaked radish cubes, fluffy steamed egg whites sprinkled with scallions, japchae with spinach and mushrooms, bean sprouts, baby broccoli with sesame seeds, chile-slathered cucumbers, and crisp, spicy kimchi sheets.
According to my Korean-born friend, who suggested Seongbukdong, the key to good kimchi is good cabbage, preferably from California’s San Joaquin Valley. It’s best in autumn, when it’s harvested. The second best time, spring: when soil conditions are similar to fall.
The menu only offers 25 dishes, primarily soups, casseroles and grilled dishes. While many sounded appetizing, my friend recommended two particular dishes, so that’s what I ate.
Braised Mackerel ($14.99) is served in a dented metal bowl. Cross-sections of fish and daikon radish are boiled before braising with chile sauce, kimchi and onions. Braising rendered all the ingredients incredibly tender. Before being served, the dish was showered with scallions and sesame seeds. Mackerel can taste fishy, but not at Seongbukdong, where the chef is clearly skilled. Even the skin was luscious. The only issue was avoiding the tiny bones. According to my friend, “In the ’60s, living in the countryside, getting fish was a special treat. In Korea, there’s a farmers’ market every five days, the only time they can get protein from fishermen or farmers.”
Steamed Beef Short Rib ($20.99), known is Korea is galbi jjim, was previously reserved for Korea’s upper class, and still is. The meat was marinated with soy sauce and sugar and braised with Japanese peppers. The peppers still contained seeds, so I expected spice, but the green peppers were mild, similar to Anaheim chilies. Our waitress used scissors to cut lengths of luscious short rib.
Entrees came with a choice of white rice or mixed rice. We both opted for mixed rice, which included red beans and wild black rice grains that imparted nutty flavor.
While some Koreatown restaurants are fancier, and others have larger menus, Seongbukdong deserves mention for its focus, flavor and value.