If you’re cued into the St. Louis foodie scene at all, you’ve probably heard of David Choi’s Korean fusion favorite Seoul Taco. But have you tried one of the many strictly Korean restaurants in town?
St. Louis is home to a “shockingly high” number of such restaurants, said Heather Hughes, the managing editor of Sauce Magazine. In the magazine’s recent issue, author Shannon Cothran recently wrote about nine different traditional Korean restaurants throughout the region with decidedly different specialties.
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, we spoke with Hughes and two operators of Korean restaurants in the region to get a firmer grip on Korean food and what to be on the lookout for.
“You might think you’re unfamiliar with Korean food but you’ve probably had a lot of Korean flavors in the past few years,” Hughes told St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter. “You’ve probably seen kimchi in a lot of restaurants that aren’t Korean. We’ve talked before about the fermented foods trend, kimchi is fermented. Gochujang, fermented chili paste, spices foods where you don’t expect it. The classic I always go for is the bibimbap, a vegetable, meat and rice bowl. It is super popular, Korean or otherwise.”
Korean restaurants in the St. Louis area range from Korean BBQ to bakeries to diners to spots that have karaoke in their back corners.
Tae Kim is the manager of the Oriental Spoon restaurant in Edwardsville, which he started eight years with his sister, while he was a student at SIUE. While he moved to the St. Louis area as a teen, Kim’s parents are in the restaurant business in Korea. He found that Korean restaurants in the region were often very formal or served only Korean customers – he wanted to create a simple, casual restaurant accessible to everyone.
Kim recommends first-timers try bibimbap or bulgogi, thinly-sliced marinated grilled meat. His shop’s best seller is spiced pork bulgogi, which is marinated in a house-made sauce, and stir-fried with onion and green onion and served with white rice.
Victor Jang is the co-owner of Wudon BBQ Korean Restaurant in Creve Coeur, which is about eight months old. Jang used to work in sales in New York City, focusing on the St. Louis and Kansas City region. On trips to the region, he saw a gap in the Korean food offerings in town: no built-in grills at restaurants, which are traditional to the Korean BBQ style. Jang and his wife, whose parents hail from the restaurant business in Korea, decided to pick up and open such a grill of their own.
Jang recommends trying something off of the combo menu at Wudon. The restaurant’s best-seller is the beef and pork combo, which contains high-end cuts of beef. Jang also recommends the marinated beef combo. Each order comes with banchan, small side dishes like kimchi and potato pancakes served with every entrée order (whether you meant to order them or not!)
Both restaurants serve a variety of Korean soups and drinks like soju, a clear distilled beverage from Korea, as well as Korean beer.
You can also keep your eye out for Korean desserts on the menu sometime soon at Wudon. Kim recommends matang, a candied sweet potato dish covered in honey and peanuts.
If you’re anxious about trying Korean cuisine, Jang said it’s a cuisine perfect for meat lovers.
“If it is your first time, I’d just say: ask a lot of questions,” Kim also added. “Korean food is nothing different than what you’re eating. There’s nothing to be worried about. If you like Chinese or any other Asian food, you’ll do just fine.”
Sound Bites is produced in partnership with Sauce Magazine, our monthly installment exploring cuisine in the St. Louis area.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.