Welcome to Korean Barbecue Chronicles, a semi-regular series where meat aficionado Euno Lee explores some of the newest and most compelling Korean grill houses in Los Angeles. This next spot, the former Dalmaji has converted into a post-shift office worker haven along Western Avenue called Muldaepo. Not to be confused with the longtime Moodaepo II, this premium combo-driven spot carries a great price-to-quality ratio.
On a recent visit to Muldaepo in Koreatown, a group of Korean office workers stand outside the entrance, all of them male, clad in conservative button-down shirts, some of them with sleeves rolled up, most of them smoking cigarettes. It’s a common scene throughout the city — office workers taking a load off, engaging in small talk over hoesik (literally “eating together”), or office dinner, the analogy to American culture being the office happy hour.
They’re in the right place. Muldaepo, which has taken over the old Dalmaji space off 8th and Western for a little bit short of a year, seems practically purposed for the post-work hoesik.
Most diners familiar with K-Town’s restaurant scene have probably already been exposed to a taste of hoesik culture. Even without stepping foot in Seoul, one’s indubitably been subject to the movable shit-show of soju bombs, barbecue, and more drinking capped off with a noraebang (private room karaoke) session. And if not, the subject’s been well-trod by the likes of the late Anthony Bourdain on episodes of No Reservations and Parts Unknown.
In Korea, the culture of hoesik is changing. Once-overworked employees are seeking more work-life balance. Numerous reports of after-hours sexual harassment in noraebangs via the #MeToo movement have softened the demand for the once bustling private karaoke halls. Share prices of the world’s largest soju manufacturer, HiteJinro Co., are hovering at all-time lows after multiple quarters of declining sales.
And so Muldaepo already feels like a bit of an anachronism in a culture that seems to be shifting away from the alcohol-fueled conviviality of hoesiks past. And yet the restaurant is packed on a Thursday night — and there isn’t a single table in the house without a bottle of soju on it.
Space and Scene
Whether it’s the humid heat with the cheap fans blowing smoke everywhere (whatever happened to fan death theory?), or the scent of grilling meat and caramelized marinade smoke seemingly sticking to one’s skin, it’s almost as if Muldaepo’s humid, smoke-dense dining room was intentionally designed to make people need a cold beer.
The vast majority of patrons here are Korean, and their ages are ambiguous thanks to a Korean skincare industry that has probably transcended science and crossed over into occult witchcraft by now. So yeah, mostly folks in their twenties, thirties, or maybe their forties. This place isn’t necessarily kid-friendly, but every Korean restaurant could accommodate families.
Don’t let all of Muldaepo’s alcohol-centered bells and whistles distract — much of the better cuts of beef (served as part of a combination) is worth the price of admission. Our table ordered the $149 combination that easily fed four large humans, though it could’ve potentially fed six. The beef combination opens with chadol baeggi (brisket) and hyeomitgui (tongue). Unfortunately, the chadol fails to really stand out. Sliced too thin, it curls into small piles of maillardized beef fat that don’t add anything beyond the typical chadol baeggi experience. Tongue meat fares a bit better, with a nice, deep, muscular beef flavor with a pleasant bite.
It’s the higher-end offerings where things really start to pick up a notch at Muldaepo. Marinated short rib is meltingly tender, fatty, and a bit sweet, reminiscent of the cut on offer at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. The kkotsal, or thinly sliced unmarinated short rib, is freckled thoroughly with spots of fat. Unfortunately the grease isn’t enough to save it from sticking to the grill at high temperature on a single sear. Carefully manage the thinly sliced cuts, and it’s a rewarding bite. The cut imparts an ever-so-slightly unctuous mouthfeel the way the better kkotsals tend to do, just a step short of Japanese wagyu in the way the fat seems to disintegrate the meat.
Small cubes of grilled ribeye steak impart an ever-so-gentle taste of sweet soy marinade before seemingly vaporizing into a pool of juice.
Banchan is relegated to kimchi and a couple daikon radish wraps. The number of dishes that come included with the beef combo, however, are a sight to behold. The standard egg soufflé comes slightly adulterated with briny baby shrimp saeujeot. Pajeon, or green onion pancake, is served up alongside dubukimchi, or a Korean bar snack of extra-fermented kimchi and fresh tofu. Nakji bokkeum (spicy octopus casserole) also makes an entry, topped with cheese and served on a stone dish. It’s entirely unremarkable, and almost out of place here.
It’s interesting to note here that pajeon, dubukimchi, and corn cheese are basically anju, or Korean bar snacks. Add to the bar snacks the slightly-spicy-but-too-salty nakji bokkeum topped with cheese, and it all feels like a hollow (and naked) ploy to make one thirsty for more beer than anything resembling honest side dishes.
Save room for after the meat courses, though — Muldaepo, which actually offers clams and various raw seafood items for grilling, also makes a mean bajirak kalguksu (clam knife-cut-noodle soup). Though the noodles don’t taste too far off from the store-packaged Ottogi brand, the broth is potent with refreshing clam-and-anchovy flavor. It’s as compelling a finish to a Korean barbecue meal as there is in the city.
Young, fluent English-speaking servers are energetic and fully prepared to get the party started. Knowledgeable of the menu (and the appropriate size of portions for a given party, which is rare for an a la carte Korean BBQ restaurant), they’re a cut above the terse, hurried service that’s become endemic of the genre.
For a throwback hoesik to get a night of soju-fueled bonding off on the right foot, look no further.
Muldaepo. 808 South Western Avenue. Koreatown, Los Angeles, CA. 213-674-7420. Open 4:30 p.m. to midnight daily, with a 1 a.m. closure on weekends.