There was a time when Sun Nong Dan, the intensely popular braised short rib specialist on the corner of 6th Street and Alexandria, didn’t have anyone standing around for a table. These days, the small 40-seat restaurant has hour-long waits even at 3 a.m. Sun Nong Dan’s hegemony began a few years ago when Momofuku founder David Chang kept Instagramming meals there, and the hordes descended. Later, Jonathan Gold even reviewed the place for the LA Times, which sealed Sun Nong Dan’s iconic status in Koreatown. Not bad for a place that opened in late 2013.
The dish that has everyone raving is called galbijjim, and it’s certainly a dish that’s not difficult to find in Koreatown. Places like Soban and Seongbukdong do very good versions, albeit more traditional and more sleight, typical of what one would find in Koreatown. Traditional, galbijjim, literally “short rib steam,” was a celebratory dish that Koreans ate during Chuseok. The early autumn festival takes place in August, just before the beginning of the harvest to celebrate abundance. LA-born Koreans might know it as Korean “Thanksgiving,” which like its American analogue implies lots of good food.
Sun Nong Dan’s popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed, and it was only a matter of time before imitators followed suit. Yangji Gamjatang, another late night restaurant just next door to Sun Nong Dan, serves a spicy braised pork rib dish in a big stone cauldron. Close, but no cigar.
A new spot called Kkini, which took over a former Seoul-based yookhwejang (spicy beef soup) restaurant starting January 1, has managed to rise as a specialist for galbijjim served in big stone bowls. And in the span of three months, it’s become a massive hit with Koreans.
Step inside and one will likely hear diners barking at servers for more banchan (this is a typical thing for Koreans — yell at servers until they help you). Virtually everyone sitting inside Kkini is a first generation Korean-American, veteran eaters who expect high quality for a reasonable price.
The galbijjim isn’t typical though, especially the spicy variant. Instead of luxurious short ribs, which feature large chunks of tender meat and thick cuts of bone, Kkini serves this dish with shorter whole rib pieces.
These smaller bones are the ones attached to ribeye steaks, so their flavor is incredibly pronounced and beefy without sacrificing tenderness. Beef rib racks aren’t as substantial as their short rib counterparts, and they’re certainly more difficult to eat because the meat’s more settled into the bone. But there’s something incredibly fun about gnawing on bones over a steaming cauldron. In fact, the stone cookware itself also serves a purpose here, versus the ones at Sun Nong Dan (or Yangji Gamjatang).
Kkini serves the heavy stone bowls over a freshly lit sterno chafing dish warmer, so the intensely rich, spice-laden sauce reduces as the meal progresses. What starts out as a bubbling soup turns into a thick, pourable sauce that’s delicious when spooned over rice. In addition to beef back ribs, the galbijjim also throws in some carrots, potatoes, and rice cakes, all of which are pretty traditional and work as nice departures from the bones. Meanwhile, banchan at Kkini is pretty skimpy, just napa cabbage and radish kimchi that work nicely as cold, crunchy accoutrements.
Priced at $44.95, it’s not necessarily a “cheap” dinner, but it’s a solid amount for two people. Even better, go in with four people, order two of the galbijjim, and try a few extra dishes like the seafood pancake or bowl of beef rib soup.
Kkini. 859 S Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.