Opening a Korean barbecue restaurant in LA's Koreatown requires a strong stomach for competition. Alongside the plethora of different dining options, the abundant availability of high-quality meat and the format's accessibility to non-Korean tastes has fostered an environment where Los Angeles isn't just the Korean barbecue capital of the country, but possibly the world. Welcome to the Korean Barbecue Chronicles, whereupon Eater will investigate the most compelling new Korean barbecue openings in Los Angeles.
If you'd have it the way Magal BBQ's North American Operations Manager Jay Kang tells it, Magal was the one to do it first in Korea. Do what first, exactly? The "combo" portions, the grill grate with the egg souffle cooking in a side slot, the corn cheese heating up in another. He is referring, of course, to some of the proprietary quirks that has endeared Kang Ho Dong Baek Jeong to Angelenos for the last few years.
First-to-market has its advantages, but those enamored with the perpetually overcrowded Baek Jeong will find just a couple familiar touches alongside a plethora of more intriguing concepts at Magal BBQ, which opened two months ago on the corner of Hobart Blvd and 8th Street in Koreatown.
The Space and scene
Magal has made the best of an awkward space, with bright lighting and colorful tones offering a welcome, energetic change of pace from the genre's obsession with polished woods and granite. Tables include round two-to-four tops, which surround a vertical line of booths that seat two-to-four. This is not your dad's Korean barbecue.
Diners' ages range from mid-20s spring chickens (yours truly) to well-heeled and experienced ajeoshi's (gentlemen) and ajeummas (ladies), which is to say it's a bustling crowd that's almost universally Korean at this point, due presumably to the name recognition. Magal has hundreds of locations in Southeast Asia, China and Korea alongside the Los Angeles and New York locations, with four more lined up in California alone (including Fullerton and San Jose).
It's in the combos that Magal sets itself apart. Alongside the typical combo menu-model that's in vogue these days, there are a couple meat items that stand out. First, the house specialty is the Mapo galmaegi, or pork skirtmeat. The funnily-shaped pork is marinated in either soy or red pepper and then grilled up. The shape of the meat funnels off toward the edge — perfect when considering these little edges will caramelize while the rest of the meat reaches doneness, creating a contrast of textures with every bite.
Straight out of the Korean street drinking tent playbook
Maeun kkomjangeoh, or hagfish with spicy sauce, is straight out of the Korean street drinking tent (or pojang macha) playbook. First, make sure you don't look up what a hagfish looks like. Then, enjoy how the caramelized gochujang marinade makes a positively crunchy little morsel of fish that tastes like a slightly more briny squid leg. Chase it down with some beer and/or soju (yes, you can mix a dram of soju with your glass of beer for extra sweetness).
[Left: Hagfish slivers on the grill. Right: Joomooleok, or marinated short rib]
Of the beef options, the star of the show was the joomooleok, or marinated short rib. Cut almost a half-inch thick and prodigiously marbled, the beef does justice to the cliche of being "melt-in-your-mouth tender," a rich explosion of beefy, fatty flavor. It's unlike any joomooleok experience I've had, and take it from the guy with gout, since I've had a lot of grilled short rib.
I'd be remiss not to mention the pork skin in sweet sauce, which is grilled to still-tender, dunked in soy sauce and then dipped into a tiny saucer of bean powder. It sounds ridiculous until you try it and notice that the bean powder neutralizes what would normally be an unctuous piece of fat, leaving instead a mellowing agent that helps the diner appreciate the skin's flavor.
The affable servers don safari hats and Hawaiian shirts sporting little personalized Korean flair buttons. Though properly versed in recognizing the doneness of meats, they do seem more concerned with laying some of the more picturesque cuts of meats down on the grill in an Instagram-friendly arrangement as opposed to taking advantage of the varying heat levels around the grill, which — on this occasion — can be unruly.
Table banchan is minimal, relegated to some celery with soy marinade (good), kimchi (serviceable), and two unremarkable salads (one with a creamy sesame black dressing and palm-sized leaves of romaine, and a bean-sprout-and-green-onion number that's a little too heavy on the grassy sprouts). The real show-stopper is a refreshing little black bowl of cold dongchimi (pickling liquid) broth, which is peppered with julienned cucumbers and red cabbage with a dash of sesame along with acorn jelly and little strips of kimchi. Magal really should bottle this stuff and sell it.
Is anyone doing Korean BBQ this eclectic, this challenging, this well, in this awesome an environment? It's a serious question worth exploring for an answer.
3460 W 8th Street
Los Angeles, CA
Hours run 11 a.m. to midnight daily, until 1 a.m. on weekends.
Edited by Matthew Kang
Photos by Wonho Frank Lee