I have a piece in this week's Onion (Volume 42 Issue 42). I'd link to it but it's not online as it's local to the AV Club section of the New York edition.
Beyond the world of kimchi
There is no reason to be afraid of Korean food, even if Korea’s national dish—kimchi—happens to be cabbage fermented underground. Cuisine from the Hermit Kingdom offers up a great range of textures and flavors fit for carnivores and vegetarians alike. While it may never be as customary as Chinese, Japanese, or Thai, casting off Korean would be a mistake—especially if it meant missing out on the restaurants below.
Start at Shilla in Koreatown, where servers wearing wireless headsets lead you to one of the restaurant’s three floors. More than a dozen varieties of Korean barbecue include beef, pork belly, and spicy chicken, and the meats are cooked on gas grills built right into the tables. Pop a piece of kalbi, or short rib, onto a lettuce leaf and top it off with a shmear of spicy miso paste for an Asian wrap. Or choose from the many options listed under “table d’hote,” like yook gae jang, a fiery stew loaded with scallions, glass noodles, and lots and lots of shredded beef. Where Shilla stands out most is in its selection of banchan, complimentary small dishes served with all meals. Offerings like shredded daikon in a sweet vinegary sauce, steamed egg custard, and assorted kimchis are not only tasty, but also add up to real sustenance in the end.
Across the street is Kom Tang Soot Bull Kalbi, another multi-level restaurant where barbecue is the top priority. Instead of gas or electric grills, Kom Tang uses charcoal, which gives meats a smoky finish. You can grab the tongs and take charge of your meal, or defer to a server who will make sure you’re not messing things up. That small dish of garlic slices? Dump the contents on the grill to cook the bitterness right out of it for a great accompaniment for your kalbi. You’ll walk away smelling like a chimney starter, but it’s a fair trade.
Tucked into a much smaller space a few doors east is Mandoo Bar, which specializes in Korean dumplings, or mandoo—there’s even a windowed area through which you can observe first-hand the dexterity and swiftness of mandoo preparation. Variations come filled with kimchi, vegetables, and pork, and all can all be ordered steamed or fried. Choose the latter for browned skin that provides a nice crispy contrast to the fillings. Heartier appetites can supplement their meal with duk boki, a casserole of chewy rice cakes, fish cakes, vegetables, and noodles that cook on a portable burner.
Korean restaurants abound downtown in the East Village, but the hidden gem is SuRa, where the décor, service, and food all suffuse the air with serenity. The spinach-corn porridge is smooth and homey, and the busut jeon, shitake mushroom caps stuffed with tofu and onion, are absolutely addictive. If anybody else at your table expresses interest, get two orders—you won’t want to give up any of your share. SuRa also offers notable lunch specials, like a grilled pork box that comes with green tea health rice, seaweed soup, and the chef’s choice of sides.
Just north of Union Square Park is Express Manna Kitchen, a nice alternative to its fast-food and mega-deli neighbors. A popular choice here is the kalbi jim, short ribs braised in a sweet, soy-based sauce. It’s served with tender chunks of carrots and radish, and you also get rice, miso soup, and a trio of banchan, of which one is always a small dish of kimchi. “Rock ’N’ Rice” is their version of dolsot bibimbap, rice and vegetables (and meat if you wish) topped with a fried egg and kochujang (red chili paste), and served in a sizzling stone pot. The heat of the bowl transforms the rice at the bottom from sticky to crunchy—it’s the best part of the meal.
Express Manna Kitchen: 28 18th St b/w Broadway & Park Ave
Kom Tang Soot Bul Kalbi: 32 32nd St b/w 5th Ave & Broadway
Mandoo Bar: 2 32nd St b/w 5th Ave & Broadway
Shilla: 37 32nd St b/w 5th & 6th Aves
SuRa: 105 9th St b/w 3rd & 4th Aves