A dollop of lime crema adds the perfect amount of squishiness to the shredded, slow-cooked beef Chris Oh uses in his poutine. A cross between kalbi jjim and an Ensenada-style taco, the meat-drenched taters retain their Québécois roots and radiate a Mexican brightness yet represent something indelibly Korean. Dishes like that helped Oh expand his Seoul Sausage Company truck operation into a pair of brick-and-mortars. It’s also nothing like what you’ll find at Hanjip, his latest venture. What Oh is doing with his Culver City restaurant is introducing Korean food to a wider audience without trying to adapt, adopt, revamp, or reconfigure. The kimchi is as fiery as any near Western Avenue; the brisket, as rosy and as fragrant when dropped on the grill. Down to its last crisp shards, the pan-jun, a seafood pancake thick with scallions and rock shrimp, is on par with the archetype that has been luring Angelenos to Kobawoo House near Vermont and 7th since 1983.
While Thai, Chinese, and Japanese food merged into the city’s polyglot scene long ago, for whatever reason Korean food has remained an option you’d probably head to Koreatown to enjoy, given the lack of even “Americanized” outposts in other neighborhoods. Not only has Oh established a beachhead on the Westside, featuring a menu that a skeptical grandparent might approve of, he’s ready to go wide. To help him expand Hanjip, which means “the house,” he has partnered with Stephane Bombet—the restaurateur behind Viviane, Terrine, and Faith & Flower—to lend his managerial smarts (along with financing). The first branch debuted in November near Sony Studios. Another is slated for downtown this summer, with more still being worked out. It’s an ambitious plan of attack, one that relies in part on an aesthetic that mixes the refined—rich, slat-paneled walls and mod seating—with a hint of the edgy. The graphics resemble woodblock graffiti, if such a thing could exist, and booths surround tables that seem to rest atop industrial drums (they house the grillworks) with sleek circular exhaust hoods. More important is the personality Oh brings to the food.
The cooking may be faithful, but with an asterisk. Take the steamed egg. At Yang San Bak on Normandie, the dish is a complimentary starter and a glimpse of a folk tradition, with a simple whisked yolk that sets soufflélike in a dolsot stone pot. Oh sticks to the core recipe but crowns his version with two additional types of egg—uni, whose creaminess signals local sourcing (it’s from Santa Barbara), and salmon roe. Oh also offers corn cheese, that staple you see at most Korean bars, but he embellishes the Parmesan-crusted kernels with bonito flakes and a generous marrow-filled bone that protrudes from the side. I haven’t tried the $150 tomahawk chop and don’t see the need to. Big and burnished with foie gras butter, it’s made for Instagram sharing as much as savoring, but to me it seems like a distraction from the real story: a talented chef’s intention to provide Korean barbecue that holds its own against the best in the city and to do so without much compromise.
A cornerstone of Oh’s strategy is the service, which is geared to welcoming newbies, though the crew is careful not to alienate more experienced diners who may be just fine with flipping their own marbled bulgogi. The meal (and the instruction) begins with the busboy naming each of the customary banchan fixings as he places the metallic bowls around the grill. There are deep green sesame leaves, cubes of chile-tinged pickled daikon, and loops of chewy dried squid. A fast-moving corps in oversize blue shirts with the Hanjip logo on the back, the waiters are adept at knowing when to dive in and help people figure out what to do, grabbing tongs kept in a tabletop Ball jar to spread the ahn-chong-sal skirt steak over the flames or applying shears to what’s known as “L.A. gal-bi,” the marinated slivers Angelenos turned into a classic preparation that is revered for the way mirin, honey, and soy caramelize around crosscut short ribs.
It doesn’t take much time for everyone to get in on the joys of Korean dining. The soup is being sipped, the sprouts are munched, the tongs are wielded, the bottle is poured. Me? Perched near the flame with my group, I like to lift a charred sliver of tongue from the grill, dunking it in ssamjang, the Korean miso paste that provides an earthy complement to the lean meat. Not that Oh mentions it on the menu, but the pork he uses is Kurobuta sourced from Snake River Farms. The meat isn’t shaved paper-thin as it might be in an all-you-can-eat depot, and the heft of the jowl makes it ideal for snipping, swirling, and leaving it on the tabletop grill to get crunchy without drying it out. Sam-gyup-sal, the pork belly slices that are set down, ready for cooking with a raw half onion, pack a clean, porky flavor, but I prefer mae-won-sam-gyup-sal, the oilier red alternative, which has steeped in a sharp fermented chile gochujang marinade that becomes all the more intense when suspended in the smoke rising from the grill.
I’m just as keen on the julienned potatoes, which are flash cooked, then dressed in sesame oil and sprinkled with black sesame seeds. They’re especially satisfying tossed over cloves of garlic that have browned on the grill’s rim. Those potatoes are a preparation Oh learned from his mom, who wasn’t on board at first when she found out that her son wanted to be a chef. Oh was born in Seoul and raised in Cupertino, where the nibbles at the local 99 Ranch Market were as formative as the family table. Wishing to make his parents proud, he owned a successful real estate company and car wash but traded them for an apron after having what he calls a “quarter-life crisis” and moving south.
Soon enough, he’d won Knife Fight and Cutthroat Kitchen, emerging as an important figure among second-generation Asian American chefs who’ve reenergized their cuisines, whether by being creative or by refusing to diverge from tradition. Brothers Chad and Chase Valencia planted LASA, their pop-up highlighting Filipino dishes like roast duck and rice soup, in the restaurant incubator that Eggslut’s Alvin Cailan opened in Chinatown. Jet Tila, whose family-run Bangkok Market on Melrose introduced coconut milk to many, has become a TV spokesperson for Thai cooking, while Night + Market’s Kris Yenbamroong maintains a disciplined vision but leaves room for you to enjoy a naturally fermented wine with his fish sauce-laced nam prik salads.
There’s wine at Hanjip, too, and although a maverick pairing—like a cerise Mondeuse de Bugey and yang-ko-chi or cumin-dusted lamb—works well, it’s the smaller dishes at Hanjip that underscore how this is a cuisine that seems made for drinking. No less habit forming than the corn cheese are the fried-to-order chicharrones, which are flecked with chile flakes and lemon zest. They’re a good way to get going when the giant Hite and the frosted shot glasses arrive. A Belgian Trappist ale draws out the dashi in the sweet-and-spicy glaze of the barbecued ribs, ensuring the platter will soon be covered in bones that have been sucked clean. Oh has even figured out how to make dessert into drinking food, providing just one option. Lopped in half, with its insides scooped into large orbs, a watermelon becomes a receptacle for Fruity Pebbles and Pop Rocks. As the waiter sloshes half a bottle of soju over them to get them crackling, the ritual takes on the zaniness of last call at a karaoke bar. Everyone at the table picks up a straw and starts slurping. I can’t think of a flavor more synthetic than the slurry of Fruity Pebbles and Pop Rocks, but between the liquor and the fruit, the whole thing tastes kind of great.
Best Dishes: Seafood pancake, chicharrones, Mister Oh’s BBQ Ribs, cumin-spiced lamb, marinated pork belly, beef tongue, L.A. gal-bi
3829 Main St., Culver City, 323-720-8804
Drinks: Short list of craft beers, soju, and wine; no cocktails
Noise Level: Music not too loud, but the crowd has fun
Kid Friendly? Yes, but mind those fingers near the grill
Price Range: $10 (soybean stew) to $150 (tomahawk chop)
Hours: Daily, 11:30 a.m. to midnight
Parking: Valet ($8), lot, and street
Credit Cards: All major