First of all, I wanted to thank everyone at FTC for being so helpful and informative in general – it’s been amazing reading all of the intel everyone’s gathered throughout the years. With that said, well, it’s time I started pulling my weight around here. Brace yourself for multiple digressions and many crappy iPhone 6s camera photos.
Kyung Bok Kung
Full menu: http://kyungbokkungusa.com/menu-1
Kyung Bok Kung opened in mid-August and it’s — generously speaking — still in the early stages.
TL;DR: As far as barbecue, don’t waste your time or money. Seriously. Real charcoal helps elevate meats that are mostly comparable in quality to Kang Ho Dong Baek Jeong, but the flora, fauna and fanfare is completely wasted on an unfocused menu, subpar service, and downright pitiful portions of meat. The experience is uneven in some bad places, and it makes me wonder just how much a place like this could stand to improve, even with the added benefit of time. Great marinated galbi. “Aged ribeye” does not mean dry-aged. Service ranges from barely passable (if you speak Korean) to just outright rude — which is NOT good considering how much of a premium you’re paying. A hollow cash-grab targeted at old Korean men who like to throw around their money to impress people they hate.
So a little bit on the name: 경복궁 (Gyeongbokgeung) refers to the royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. Located in modern-day Seoul, it was built in 1395 and served as Korea’s seat of power for many years. It was burned down during a war in the 1590s, and then rebuilt in the 19th century. More saliently (and recently), the palace was destroyed by Imperial Japan in the early 20th century, and in 1989 the Korean government began rebuilding efforts to restore Gyeongbokgeung palace to its old glory, which is still ongoing. If you’re ever in Seoul, it’s practically required visiting.
The reason I bring this up is because the name 경복궁 (Gyeongbokgeung/Kyung Bok Kung) itself invokes powerful imagery to Koreans — one of immense national pride, a testament to the national character of resilience and, in a very real sense, its cultural bona fides. It’s not that Gyeongbokgeung isn’t a good name for a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles (it is), it’s that until August 2018, nobody really had the stones to go through with it. Until now.
So imagine how it feels as a Korean to pull up to Gyeongbokgeung’s parking lot of luxury cars, to step out and to hear American jazz music (and not even good jazz — fucking Kenny G smooth jazz). It’s already a little bit disorienting.
The space inside is gorgeous. Almost exclusively wood furnishings, attractive lanterns hang from the ceilings and the layout is thoughtfully spaced out. Clearly no expense was spared in making KBK look the part of a first-rate dining experience. This is a Korean-based chain flexing all of its capital muscle to make a statement.
The menu is a bit confusing at first – there are your usual combo options (pork is still “Coming Soon”), but a couple items you don’t usually really see at Korean barbecues: - “Aged cubed ribeye (oh boy, we’ll get to this)” and Japanese A-5 wagyu beef, purportedly from Miyazaki. (There’s a Miyazaki beef certificate proudly displayed out front). Just your friendly reminder that the Japanese demolished Gyeongbokgeung palace in the early 1910s during their occupation of Korea.
But you’re not here for a salty history lesson, you’re here for the food! The original KBK restaurants in Korea (most of them, anyway) specialize in han jung sik, or Korean imperial court cuisine. This style of food can be found most famously at Yong Su San in Koreatown, across the street from Park’s BBQ. KBK aims to be a cross between the two restaurants, serving high quality meats over live charcoal (approved by health department? who knows? who cares?!) and a separate meal of han jung sik (starts at $55/person) that requires a reservation. I didn’t have one, so I just got the small beef combo ($79), with an extra order of the aged cubed ribeye ($37).
The sides are a little strange. Let’s start by giving credit to the sight-impaired person who cut this white radish water kimchi — I’m impressed that they still have their hands and also found a way to create so many unique shapes:
The lighting on this awkwardly tossed/cut salad does it justice — it tastes as sad as it looks. Those two tofu-shaped cubes are actually a not-very-good burrata:
The sexy lighting on this bean jelly noodle dish with slivered cucumbers, bean sprouts, bulgogi and dried squid also does it justice: This was actually pretty tasty. A little heavy on the sesame oil, but I could imagine eating a bigger version of this. Savory, salty, a little crunchy and with those springy noodles — a win:
My personal favorite, the sashimi ceviche, which… Jesus H. Red snapper sashimi in a very acidic soy-based dressing. The picture doesn’t show it but there’s everyone’s favorite poke-bowl standby seaweed salad underneath this confused mess. This dish somehow managed to disrespect three different cultures at the same damn time.
KBK’s take on gujeolpan (9-different colors) wrap. Yes, that is a julienned bell pepper, native to the bell pepper-producing Korean province of Florida. Not pictured: Shrimp. This tasted entirely unremarkable, and if someone in my family tried to pass this off as a gujeolpan wrap they would have been subject to endless ridicule.
Now for the first part of meats: Starting the charcoal. KBK has a pretty, old-school looking cover that helps to get that charcoal party started. Note the depth of the coals, this will become important later.
But wait – more sides! This one’s a baechoojun, or cabbage pancake. It sounds like sad peasant food but this dish actually incorporates acorn flour (dotorigaru) and the actual pancake part is neatly executed, without too much grease. It’s completely devoid of crunch, but that’s by design. As for the veggies, well, you kind of feel for the person who has to eat the white part of the green onion on this thing (it was me).
There are a variety of decently executed vegetable sides – a bevvy of highly acidic, soy-vinegar marinated banchan, so to speak. These help to balance the meat out a little bit, but they’re nothing too remarkable and not entirely necessary because:
The meat portions are just sad.
- Two narrow lines of short rib, and two barely-thicker-than-cheesesteak slices of ribeye.
Marinated short rib was far and away the highlight of the meal. Kissed with a touch of caramelization, brought to medium by charcoal, I fucking hate this phrase but the slightly sweet, fatty marinated beef actually kind of melted in your mouth. Ribeye was tough and forgettable.
- The entire portion of chadol and boneless short rib are pictured here. You think I’m joking. I’m dead serious.
- My $37 order of cubed aged ribeye looked like this:
Let’s address the elephant in the room here: That “aged ribeye” is not dry aged. The server didn’t know what that meant (oh, we’ll get to her), so she went to the back and asked. They laid out the process for a proper wet-aging. As is generally the case with wet aging, there was a little bit of deeper “beefy” flavor, but no funk. I know how you FTC’ers like your funk. This is not that. And for $37, I didn’t know what I really expected – but it was a little bit more meat than this.
Traditionally, meat is the precursor to the rest of the meal… this has fallen out of practice with the increased availability of meat in general. Our after-meat meal was some doenjang-jjigae, and I ordered a bowl of naengmyeon because, well, (1) it was $5, and (2) what the fuck, right?
Well, what the fuck, indeed
This is after I mixed it and tried to pull the strands loose. Like a piece of tteok. To quote my mother at the dinner table: “Wait, are you serious?” Holy smoked hot dogs, guys. Awful.
The doenjang jjigae fared a little better, though if you’re going to make it with clams or beef, make it with one and not both. I bit down into a bit of the beef and got the brine of clams. Doing too much in the wrong place there.
Yes, there is an entire section dedicated to the frustration experienced at KBK.
- First — and foremost — the service was night and day depending on the language you speak. I don’t know how many FTC’ers speak and look Korean (the latter part is also important – when at any given OC Korean restaurant just brace yourself for racial prejudice).
When I spoke Korean, she spoke in flawless jondaemal, or honorific Korean. When I spoke in English, I got a firsthand experience of how she might talk to her friends. When I’m paying ~$75 a head, telling me to repeat myself by saying “WHAT?!” or saying things like “you still working on that” probably shouldn’t be in your repertoire. Moves like reaching across my face to put down/pick up a dish or clumsily knocking over condiment bowls are more forgivable — everybody’s gotta start somewhere. But the way she’d say “WHAT?!” every time I had to repeat myself because of a wailing Kenny G sax solo… come on.
The grill needs help. We sat in the restaurant for 90 minutes to finish our food, and we were eating as fast as we could because frankly, we couldn’t leave soon enough. The charcoal for some reason was so deep down that it wasn’t close enough to the meats to give off meaningful heat. It took a solid 8 minutes to cook chadol baeggi, which is just an abhorrent amount of time. The aforementioned steak cubes took a solid 15 minutes. Either get the gas flames up (I know, I know) or add more charcoal.
There is a maddening amount of potential here that needs to be capitalized on. How in the hell did grills outfitted with charcoal ever pass code? If you are the unique holder of this privilege, please — PLEASE — do right by it by offering larger format cuts on your other beef selections (and again, get that damn temperature up!).
Less little knick-knacks or failed attempts to be “cheffy” (sashimi ceviche? seriously?!) (a salad that would get rejected from Souplantation with two cubes of that Korean royal court burrata?!) (insert more outrage in ellipsis here). More MEAT in the combo. Four pitiful little fingers of short rib, two sad, thin slices of ribeye, a whisper of chadol and a half-order of the marinated kalbi is $79? You fill us up with sides then cheap out on the meat? Them are AYCE tactics!
Fix your goddamned naengmyeon. For the love of Joseon if you’re going to even pretend to serve Royal Court Cuisine make sure your cold noodles actually look like noodles.
That’s all folks! Let me know if you have any questions, I’m happy to help.