If you love living in the San Gabriel Valley as much as I do, Ktown is just too far to haul for a simple dosirak lunch or a kalbijjim dinner. Thankfully, the SGV has a growing number of Korean restaurants, with longtime favorites and more recent additions that balance out a diverse mix of spots. For a quick bite while I shop, I head to the Hmart food court in Arcadia, but when I’m feeling more serious, I head further south to Rowland Heights. If I’m ready for a big meal out with friends, I return to renowned Korean chains in San Gabriel, like A Ri Rang Tofu House. With this guide, you’ll find a bit of everything - from Korean-Italian carbonara to deep-fried stuffed squid and sweet potato injeolmi toast. These are the 12 best Korean restaurants in the SGV.
With the closure of Beverly Soon Tofu, visions of smooth, freshly-curdled tofu may be dancing through your head (they often do mine). In that case, head to this beloved restaurant in San Gabriel just 20 minutes from DTLA, where you’ll dig into what may become your favorite bowl of soon tofu in LA. Make sure to try one of the hearty combination plates, where proteins like kalbi and spicy pork are served side-by-side with tofu soups. And also order the fried yellow croaker - the crispy skin and flaky flesh make me feel like I’m on a dock by the Yellow Sea, frying up a fresh catch next to an old fisherman, which sounds like a welcome vacation right about now.
The original branch of this Korean-Italian fusion spot is in Buena Park, a miniature Ktown where, as of the 2020 Census, 21.7% of the population is Korean. Kimchi pasta - like their kimchi carbonara ddukbokki pasta - and Korean-style pasta in general, have been a huge thing in Korea for a long time, where no one is afraid to do unspeakable things to traditional bolognese and puttanesca. There’s no reverence here, where a Korean thin-crust pizza comes bearing gifts of spicy pork, caramelized kimchi, and jalapeños. Plus, you’re given free chips and salsa as soon as you walk in, which might make you think you’ve arrived at the wrong restaurant, but I’m still a fan. If you’re especially hungry, order the deep-fried stuffed squid, which I like to think of as the turducken of the sea, since it’s packed with vermicelli, veggies, and tofu.
Parked in a little plaza on Las Tunas with a few other restaurants and a rolled ice cream spot, this popular KFC chain usually has a short but consistent line outside. The style is the Korean fried chicken you know - lightly-battered, twice-fried - but the soy garlic is less gloopy than at other places that go too liberal with the sauce. Whether you dig that is up to you, but whatever you do, don’t neglect the spicy chicken. The lunch box special contains wings, drumsticks, or strips, plus a choice of two sides including soda, danmuji pickled radish, steamed rice, coleslaw, or kimchi, and will only set you back $9-$11. For the anti-KFC, there’s a decent tteokbokki, tasty japchae, and fiery buldak (stir-fried spicy chicken with rice cakes and mozzarrella).
There are more than 220 YukDaeJang stores in Korea, with five in Southern California and just one in the SGV. Especially during the pandemic, I feel like I should eat mostly at tiny family-owned or independent shops, but there’s a reliability to this place that makes me happy. That means galbi jjim (beef short ribs), bossam (pork belly), and the namesake of yukgaejang (spicy shredded brisket stew in an ox bone broth) with toothsome ahjumma-made pasta that I can count on. When that ox bone flavor hits you, you realize that this place is all about the juice. With a small outdoor seating tent, this is a reliable spot to gather with your pod - when you’re done, pop over to Bopomofo Cafe for a refreshing boba from YouTube star Phil Wang.
Rice is an art in Korea - it’s not just about how you steam it, but how you manipulate it after it’s cooked. Rolling it into gim, or dried seaweed, is one thing, and pounding it into dduk, or rice cakes, is another. But my favorite way to eat rice is in juk, or porridge. But lest you get away with thinking you can just skip Bonjuk, a famous Seoul juk chain, know this: Koreans put everything in porridge. Kimchi, oyster mushrooms, tuna, veggies, chicken and ginseng, abalone, black sesame, red bean… nothing is forbidden. And when the rice here is perfectly cooked, but not overcooked, I get the same sensation I get from a perfect risotto, that just right. The spicy octopus dolsot (stone bowl) bibimbap is really nice here too, but honestly, it’s an afterthought to that juk.
So you love Korean Chinese food - i.e., the food that Chinese immigrants brought to Korea, like jjajangmyeon? Well, I’m going to burst your bubble now and tell you that Kyodong Noodle’s jjajangmyeon is not the holy grail you seek. What is to love is the jjamppong, a spicy seafood stew with noodles, and the ulppong, its mild, brothy cousin. Skip the sweet-and-sour tangsuyuk, which is sweeter than it should be, in favor of the kkanpoong chicken, which is more balanced. It’s also fun wandering the Hmart that this food court is in, picking up random ramen bundles and Korean mu radish for kimchi, but take your time and savor your noodles first before they bloat.
OK, so you’ll drop some cash at Kanghodong Baekjeong, but if you’ve never dined at this world-renowned Korean barbecue spot, now is the time to do it outdoors at one of its two less-crowded locations (there’s a second in Rowland Heights). The quality of meat at Baekjeong, which means butcher, is impressive, but don’t stop at the micro-brisket and the seasoned short rib. Here, you want to try it all - especially the ultra-fatty pork jowl, the fiery red spicy intestine combo, and the yangdaechang, which has both tripe and large intestine. You’ll need kimchi jiigae and gyeran jjim (steamed egg) while you’re at it, of course, even though the banchan are plentiful here. Or if you’re just in for lunch to go, order up the lunchbox, which has steamed white rice with a fried egg and your choice of meat.
Though KJ is more on the side of gentrified, circa-1990s Korean food, that’s precisely what makes it great. I can take all my relatives here, including the ones who won’t touch soondae (blood sausage) or gopchang (grilled intestines). If I put a plate of bulgogi or spicy fried pork in front of my cousin, and a donkatsu (fried pork cutlet) or bulgogi kids meal in front of his kid, they’re happy to finish it all. Whenever I bring people here who typically don’t like Korean food, they’re all singing a new tune of how much they love big hearty bowls of galbitang (beef short rib soup) and samgyetang (chicken ginseng soup) before I know it. And the banchan is well-done, which is always a marker of how much to love a Korean spot - from crunchy coins of cucumber kimchi to soft-to-the-bite gamja jorim (braised potatoes).
There’s something about the way the staff at Jeun Tong treat you that makes me feel like I’m their daughter-in-law visiting for a meal. Whether it’s the unadorned interior that resembles a bare-bones taqueria or the ahjumma who’s often checking on you to see if you need more water or banchan, this family-style restaurant is always super welcoming. The soon tofu is the real draw here, with everything from mandu to oyster to miso as do-si-do partners for the slippery tofu and savory broth, but the buchu jeon (chive pancake) is something to write home to mom about too. Or at least send her a photo so she can live vicariously.
There are times when I wake from a fever dream of eating rabbokki from a Seoul street vendor. The halmoni is leaning in to whisper in my ear exactly what the key to true happiness is when I suddenly bolt awake in a cold sweat, alone in my room and completely rabbokki-less. Despite that disappointing state of waking up at a time when Big Rice is closed to rabbokki lovers, I’ve only made it there a couple of times to indulge in the mess that is a giant mishmash of ramen noodles and fat, squishy rice noodles in a fiery sauce. Big Rice gives you the option of adding udong and/or glass noodles. I’m not a fan of the modern “Just douse it in massive amounts of gross substandard mozz” that is the hallmark of Korean fast-food cooking these days, but at Big Rice, it just makes sense. Under the watchful eye of a maneki neko, you’re here to indulge in food that is fun, fast, and colorful. The cheese corn is so gooey that your chopsticks get stuck in it, and even the don katsu is smothered in an excessive amount of cheese. Expertly-rolled kimbap comes in tuna, bulgogi, kimchi, and roe, and the drinks include banana milk, strawberry milk, and Milkis, the Korean drink that tastes like milky rice.
I am not going to say a single thing about the name of this place, but I will say this: the “Umma’s Lunchbox” deal kills. Choose from fried tofu, barbecue chicken, spicy pork, and bulgogi, and the generous leftovers of rice, japchae, and banchan will make a great midnight snack. Table barbecue here is pretty simple - mostly the hits like pork ribs and short ribs, plus some rosemary and garlic pork belly. What you really want to order is the super refreshing mul-naengmyeon (cold noodle, as it’s listed on the menu) and the bibim-naengmyeon (spicy cold noodle). They’re both hot-weather dishes that are sweet, spicy, and thirst-quenching. And if there’s no ice cube in your silver bowl, ask for some to make the broth extra frosty.
Bingsoo is a Korean shaved ice dessert that often contains more toppings than shaved ice, and Sul & Beans delivers fantastically on the overboard Korean nature of this ice and ice cream dessert. Go traditional with the original, which just has shaved ice and beans, or go for something a little more inventive, like the earl grey or taro bingsoo. This cute spot is also big on injeolmi, a Korean glutinous rice cake coated in powdered dried beans. Split a black sesame or sweet potato injeolmi toast on the side, letting the unique taste of the injeolmi powder coat your mouth, and wash it down with a hot sweet potato latte.