An abundance of high-quality meat, a high concentration of ethnic Koreans and the near-universal appeal of year-round communal grilling has led to Los Angeles’ Koreatown being not only the Korean BBQ capital of the U.S., but the world. This is the second entry of the Korean Barbecue Chronicles, where Eater investigates one of the most compelling new Korean barbecue openings in Los Angeles, Hanjip.
The first time I visited Hanjip was after they had rolled out OpenTable reservations. On a cold night in January, diners with reservations were forced to wait outside 30 to 45 minutes after their reservation time to get a table in Chris Oh's new Korean barbecue restaurant in downtown Culver City. After noting the wait to the hostess and sending a couple outraged text messages to my editor, Matthew Kang, a realization set in: Korean barbecue was never designed for reservations.
South Korea is a caffeine-injected market economy, where workers brute force hours to meet project deadlines in conditions that would make an employment lawyer's stomach turn. Everything must be done quickly, so as to be the first to market, to outdo the other company, the other co-worker, the other parent, the other student. For an example of this competitive mindset, observe the mind-blowing number of eateries and bars open at night in Koreatown between Vermont and Western on 6th Street alone.
The one part of the day where families come together to sit at a table and slow down
And yet for many families, one meal receives an exemption in this fast-paced culture, and that meal is dinner: The one part of the day where families come together and sit at a communal table of meats, fish, soup and banchan, and slow down. Korean barbecue follows a similar formula, where the hiss of the grill cadences conversations and conviviality, the meals punctuated with toasts and shots of soju, and the evening, an elongated sentence that reaches the end when the diner sees fit.
Space and Scene
Hanjip is a sexy, dimly lit assemblage of dark wooden booths flanking several circular four-tops at the center. This isn't your dad's dingy barbecue joint. Cylindrical steel hanging fans are pretty to look at at lunch, but prove largely ineffective for getting the smoke out. On one visit, our server notes, "It's kind of a badge of honor to smell like Korean BBQ — people will know you have enough money to eat it." This sentiment sticks around particularly at Hanjip, where cuts range from the mid-20s up to a downright shocking $150 for the Tomahawk steak.
Apparently a lot of professional 20-and-30-somethings want that badge of honor. The crowd is as diverse as Culver City is, but tends on the younger, more happening side.
Hanjip's meat offerings are brief, and there are a few legitimate standouts. The beef cuts are almost all prime grade (save the beef tongue), which kind of explains the pricing (about on par with other high-end spots in Koreatown).
Rosy slices of chadol (brisket) tend to be more thickly cut, and hanjungsal, or pork jowl, is an impossibly rich explosion of pork fat that might bear ordering twice. The meats themselves are high quality cuts, but that doesn't necessarily excuse Hanjip from slicing them so thin, especially at their price points. Hanjip's grill grates ostensibly retain higher amounts of heat than traditional Korean barbecue grates, which is a shame, since they won't get to work their Maillard-making magic on the majority of the meat offerings. Still, the skirt steaks and marinated short rib are about as good as you'll find at the best spots in Koreatown.
One cut that the grill is practically built for is the dry-aged prime Tomahawk steak, which clocks in at an outrageous $150 and is served with a foie gras butter that tastes only passingly of foie and mostly like butter. If there was a Korean barbecue cut on earth worth paying $150 for, the Tomahawk cut at Hanjip probably is not it. Unless you're into culinarily untenable Instagram fodder, in which case, knock yourself out.
Hanjip faced a little flack on Yelp for instituting an 18% across-the-board service charge. Whether or not it's worth it is still a matter of debate. The charge comes across as especially pricey when servers basically ignore your table and leave you to your own devices (as was the case on one visit), and it's downright grating when a sassy hostess insists that, despite not being seated almost half an hour after your reservation time, you don't need to see a manager, which happened on a separate occasion.
But when the server cooks all your meat perfectly, then proceeds to pour soju down an ad hoc canal made from a hollowed-out bone into your mouth, and then does a shot with you even when you look like the person where all fun goes to die, they're not just earning 18%. They might be selling themselves about 2-5% short.
Ironically, the non-grilled items are where Hanjip could win its case as one of the better Korean restaurants in L.A. Let's start with banchan, which can be hit-or-miss. When it connects, it's a smash (a slightly sweet, perfectly chewy squid jerkey comes to mind). When Hanjip misses, it does so swinging: The sliced onions, which are pickled in a solution reserved for thinly-sliced daikon radish, are needlessly astringent, and possibly a little too sweet.
For all the raving about the bone marrow corn cheese, it might be the least likely candidate for repeat ordering just on sheer richness: Cooked kernels of corn topped with shaved parmesan, katsuobushi, and a giant bone filled with marrow make for an explosion of umami.
Other items fare even better, as kimchi fried rice comes in a traditional Korean lunch tin, fried in brown butter and crowned with a 63-degree egg. It's a marvelous play of contrasts between the fatty, rich elements and the vinegary funk of extra-fermented kimchi.
The haemul pajeon, or seafood pancake, is a stunner. Stuffed with rock shrimp and scallops, the normally pancake-like softness is contained within an almost crispy, flaky exterior that's virtually unseen outside of Korean home kitchens.
Finally, Mister Oh's Ribs, pork ribs slathered in a sweet-and-spicy gochujang-based barbecue sauce, are a must-order. Traditionally, Korean pork ribs are marinated in a spicy solution and grilled semi-dry. Oh's ribs are of a different order, a Kansas City-leaning execution that incorporates Korean ingredients, resulting in a rib that's tender and downright saucy. It's immensely pleasant eating — just make sure your date doesn't mind getting their hands dirty.
Say what you will about Hanjip's perceived pandering to the Westside, Chris Oh's restaurant really shines when staying true to its chef's Korean roots. Hanjip still seems to be fudging around with the right formula, but you might be better off going easy on the pricier grilled meats. Instead, do yourself a favor and partake of Oh's playful takes on prepared dishes, which are deftly representative of some of the best flavors Korean cuisine has to offer in LA right now.
Hanjip is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to midnight on 3829 Main Street, Culver City. Reservations accepted via OpenTable.
Editor: Matthew Kang
Photographer: Wonho Frank Lee