Seattle has Korean food the way it has good skiing: in abundance, but outside the city. The region’s critical mass of jjigae (that comforting staple not unlike a stew) and bulgogi still resides in suburbs like Lynnwood and Federal Way, and along Aurora Avenue in Shoreline. The Tacoma suburb of Lakewood even has a proper Koreatown.
Lately, though, a new generation of chefs has established a bracing rainbow of Korean restaurants closer to the city center. A few lean traditional; others channel kimchi and spicy gochujang chili paste into fine dining or fast casual forums—even into fancy corn dogs.
This pocket-size lunchroom in Georgetown is hardly the first to adapt bibimbap to our prevailing grain bowl culture, but show me another place that does it so well. Owner Jeanny Rhee’s versions—salmon in dashi, kimchi fried rice, or a seasonal vegetable medley in a great black garlic vinaigrette—satisfy carnivores and clean eaters, and the plug and play mix of proteins, sauces, and grains accommodates a ton of dietary restrictions. In a perfect world, this place would be as Seattle-ubiquitous as Evergreens.
Order: The japchae bowl—smoky and rich even before you add rib eye bulgogi.
Look past the Fruity Pebbles–coated french toast and you’ll see ample evidence of owner James Lim’s Korean heritage sprinkled throughout one of the city’s most ebullient breakfast menus. Pork belly marinated in doenjang—that classic and funky marinated bean paste—bedrocks the eggs benedict, and gochujang chicken wings top waffles in this Ballard cafe with a top-flight coffee program.
Order: A mini ssam plate of galbi short ribs and other items to wrap in greens proves an inspired start to the day.
This friendly Madison Park dining room is mostly a modest neighborhood restaurant, albeit one that makes Korean dishes you still can’t find in many of Seattle’s neighborhoods (interspersed with some Japanese fare, like udon and tonkatsu). Bibimbap might be the most popular order here, but the kimchi jjigae will knock the fuzz from your brain.
Order: Perfectly chewy tteokbokki, or stir-fried rice cakes, with fish balls in a punchy sauce made with gochujang. Leftover sauce? Use it to dip the gimmari, deep fried rolls of glass noodles wrapped in seaweed.
Korean barbecue, a pastime all too scarce in Seattle, now fills a strip mall space in Eastlake with the sizzle of galbi and pork belly, and the clink of cold bottles of Hite. Ventilation systems dangle over tables like some sort of turn-of-the-century communication system, and servers take up your scissors and tongs to help keep tabletop grill efforts on track. Meat this good almost doesn’t need the array of sauces, from a traditional doenjang-based ssamjang condiment to a house creation that brims with cilantro and chives.
Order: At least a few dishes from the rest of the menu, be it bubbling-hot tofu jjigae or a corn cheese for the ages.
Liquor license requirements meant Sam Jo needed to serve food at his Korean-toned cocktail bar in White Center. So he embraced it—and his heritage—to build a singular bar food lineup that includes a Roy Choi–inspired “Koreadilla,” and kimchi mac and cheese balls. A basket of dakgangjeong, aka bites of sticky-sweet fried chicken, easily justifies another round of the beer-soju cocktails known as somaek.
Order: Too much shochu last night? The weekend-only “koco moco” inserts house kimchi and spam fried rice into Hawaii’s champion breakfast, topped with a beef patty, runny egg, and some surprisingly great gravy.
Of course Korean grocery giant H Mart planted its first U.S. food hall spin-off in our city’s quick-lunch tech capital. Across from the Whole Foods in South Lake Union, a crisp maze of counters dispenses dumplings, grilled-to-order galbi or squid atop kimchi rice, tteokbokki, and a menu of bibimbap. No matter what you’re craving, summon it from the airport-like lineup of kiosks by the entrance, and sip a cup of complimentary barley tea as you browse the adjacent aisles of Korean condiments and snacks.
Order: Gimbap, a mix of hot and cold textures rolled in rice and seaweed, begs easy comparison to Japanese maki, but doesn’t make nearly enough appearances around Seattle. District H makes a half doz-en kinds, though none so good as the version stuffed with spam.
In a Queen Anne dining room so neutral it’s almost nondescript, a pair of fine dining expats by way of New York and San Francisco compose jewel box tributes to Korean flavors: fried rice, black with squid ink, punchy with bacon and kimchi, topped with a confit quail egg yolk, or mackerel jorim, recast in a precision-plated formation. Bulgogi is gussied with truffles. Prices remain surprisingly casual given the ambitious plates; so do the chicken wings.
Order: Those Korean-fried wings come with soy garlic or sweet chili sauce, but you can request half and half on your six-piece order.
This perennially busy new favorite in a Factoria strip mall drapes cheese across seemingly half the menu (on the kimchi fried rice, the crisp seafood pancake, even the tteokbokki). It works, though, as do the many non-cheesed comforts like Korean army stew—a cultural mashup that combines kimchi, beef, sausage, spam, and tofu—and gimbap rolls filled with meats and pickled vegetables.
Order: Chadol jjolmyeon, cold spicy noodles that hide under a salad’s worth of fresh greens and crunchy, shredded vegetables, not to mention a ribbon of delicate brisket.
Even the tagline “Korean Mexican fusion” doesn’t fully describe Suzana Olmos’s former Citizen Six pub, now renamed and relocated to the longtime Crow space in Lower Queen Anne. Palm-green tiles and tropical flourishes balance mod light fixtures, and japchae bowls and bulgogi burritos balance fish tacos and burgers. Best to not worry overmuch about nomenclature and just kick back with an unexpectedly careful cocktail and some Korean fried chicken wings.
Order: At happy hour, for solid deals on those wings, and nachos with ssam sauce, and maybe the booze slushy of the day.
Make like the K-Pop stars shown savoring this Korean chain’s glorious, gaudy corn dogs in photos on the wall, and get yourself one of these rice-battered beasts, studded with cubes of fried potato or coated in squiggles of crunchy ramen noodles. A careful fry job lifts dogs above gimmick status to a reasonable culinary composition that’s fun as hell. The counter-service shop in Chinatown–International District will gladly shake sugar on top of any order…and it’s actually a good idea.
Order: The squid ink hot dog. Do it for the ’Gram…but also the secret interior layer of mozzarella cheese.
Revel's back. It never really left: Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi relocated their rollicking street food–driven restaurant to South Lake Union for two years while its original address transformed from stylized urban boxcar to a handsome dining room with a proper entrance—but with the same enormous butcher block counter and lineup of short rib dumplings and rice bowls.
Order: Revel turns 10 this year, so Yang and Chirchi devote part of the new menu to classic dishes like dungeness crab seaweed noodles. They also make room for more shareable fare, be it roasted vegetables or half a brick chicken.
and, for dessert...
In a frosty-white shop in the U District, newcomer Snowy Village puts Korea’s shaved ice dessert, bingsu, on full and resplendent display. Frozen milk and ice shavings form a cloud-soft pile, drenched with mango or diced cheesecake or red beans and cubes of glutinous rice.