Masters of spice and fermentation, Koreans have a rich culinary history that favors the bold and downright funky. Omnipresent kimchi, tantalizing barbecue, soju, fish cakes and steaming cauldrons of stews are but a few of the mainstays of the vibrant and loud tradition. The food has a celebratory feel — much of Korean dining is done in groups. On-table grilling will leave your clothes smelling, plentiful pours of soju will invigorate the night — the flamboyant food mirroring the festive nature of the occasion.
For Western audiences, the spotlight has landed firmly and thus far remained on Korean barbecue. While there is certainly nothing wrong with this, to miss out on the other goods would be a shame. Fortunately, Denver’s thriving Korean population has brought with them a wide variety of outstanding bites from across the spectrum. Below are five locations serving Korean dishes both well-loved and unfamiliar. And if you’re looking for one more, make sure to read up on our feature of Tofu House.
Where: Dae Gee has three locations — 827 Colorado Blvd., Denver, 460 Broadway, Denver and 7570 Sheridan Blvd., Arvada.
Hours: Each location is open every day from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
The Lowdown: For unfettered feasting and an easy introduction to the cuisine, Dae Gee is a good place to start. The casual-yet-dapper ambiance, young staff and a menu — complete with thorough descriptions and icons warning of spice and gluten — all cater to a rookie audience. The food is far from simple, though. A thorough list of traditional dishes including bee bim bop (rice bowls), kimchi cheegae (a kimchi soup) and zucchini pancakes can all satisfy seasoned palates — as do the three house-made sauces that line each table.
Most people are here for the barbecue — and rightly so. The all-you-can-eat ($16 for lunch and $22 for dinner) is one of the best in town. Unending brisket, thinly-sliced pork belly, beef, pork and chicken bulgogi and the one-per-meal beef short rib arrive raw with scissors and a set of tongs — diners cook the pile on a ridged grill in the center of the table. An unceasing procession of sides — including kimchi, pickled radish, broccoli, fermented cucumber and fish cakes — bring the debauch to even greater heights.
To wash it all down, Dae Gee has an extensive drink list complete with soju, sake, Korean and American wine, cocktails and beer. Most notable is its collaborative effort with Upslope Brewery. The three aptly named brews — Mr. Pig Shot brown ale, Piggie Smalls IPA ($6) and Notorious P.I.G. imperial IPA ($7) — are apparently the result of some nefarious debt owed to Dae Gee’s owner (or so we were told). The beers were clearly designed to pair with the food — unlike many brown ales the Mr. Pig Shot lacks sweetness, making it a perfect accompaniment to the spice and sugar of the barbecue. Eat, drink and be merry — just be careful not to order more than you can eat.
Olleh Korean Restaurant
Where: Olleh Korean Restaurant is located at 2648 S. Parker Rd., Aurora.
Hours: It is open every day except Wednesday from 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.
The Lowdown: Unlike most restaurants in Denver, when you type Olleh into Google maps there will be no results. Located in an Aurora strip mall, the restaurant has no English signage, making it easy to confuse with the more clearly labeled Dae Bak Korean Bar and Grill next door. The interior is small and cluttered, Korean On Demand plays on a television behind the counter. The place feels like Seoul.
Olleh is as legitimate as it gets — the kimchi has all the satisfying funk missing from the more westernized joints and the food’s spice level is a few notches higher. The menu is only 10 items — four noodle dishes, three snacks and three soups — all around $10, all excellent. The ox head soup ($8.99) is a rich bone-broth prepared for roughly two days with a plentiful helping of noodles and decadent ox head meat. Served with spicy green peppers, smokey red chili paste and an unruly abundance of mild green onions, the impressive dish is worth it even amidst the summer heat. The kim-bap ($6.99) is rice, vegetables, fish cake, crab and egg wrapped in seaweed. Very similar to a sushi roll, the plate is served without soy sauce, allowing the mild flavors to entice in their own right. With no barbecue in sight and a simple, straightforward menu, Olleh is the perfect way to experience the types of bites found on nearly every street corner of the Korean capital.
Where: Funny Plus is located at 2779 S. Parker Rd., Aurora.
Hours: It is open Monday – Thursday 4 p.m. – 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. – 2 a.m. and Sunday 4 p.m. – 12 a.m.
The Lowdown: Funny Plus is another strip mall joint within walking distance from Olleh, and if you can’t read Hangul (the Korean alphabet) it is equally hard to find. But find it you should. Boasting a wide menu of classics including barbecue, bulgogi and heaping pots of stew designed to serve three, the list of options is formidable indeed. However, it is the fried chicken that steals the show. There are several options, but half and half ($14.99) is the most popular. A tremendous pile of drumsticks and breast-meat arrives half covered in delicious spicy-sweet sauce, the other half is left bare to shine in all its crispy glory. The sauce is magnificent, but experiencing the delicate golden crust on its own is a lesson in luxury. The portion is enormous and can easily be shared on its own or as part of a larger meal.
Where: Seoul BBQ has two locations — 311 W. 104th Ave., Northglenn and 2080 S. Havana St., Aurora.
Hours: It is open every day from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
The Lowdown: Seoul BBQ is an institution. Boasting a truly extensive menu of more than 80 items, this traditional barbecue joint will satisfy whether you choose to grill or not. Several enormous specials serving three ($89.99), four ($109.99) or five ($129.99) supply so much food it can be daunting to tackle. Cold noodles, fried and grilled fish, soups incorporating a variety of animal parts and an endless array of sides join the plethora of grilled meats — all of this just a press on the call-button away. If you’re going traditional, you should order a bottle of soju ($10.95) to be shared over the course of the meal.
The dolsut bibim-bap ($12.99) is steamed rice, an assortment of stir-fried vegetables and shredded beef served in a hot vessel. The heat from the bowl continues to cook the rice to crispy perfection over the course of the meal. They also have bibim-bap ($10.99) — same dish as the dolsut, but here served cold. The kimchi fried rice ($9.99) is exactly what it sounds to be, though Seoul’s goes surprisingly light on the cabbage — the tanginess an afterthought against the salty flavors of the rice and fried egg.
Last year Seoul’s owners opened up Seoul Catering next door. Fridges full of salt-fermented baby octopus, seaweed salad, seasoned cucumber, steamed pigs feet, Korean sausage and an array of other delicacies are joined by tables full of sweets from the nearby Yum Yum Cakes and Pastries. There is even an entire fridge full of various kimchis made from an assortment of vegetables. The food is freshly packaged and magnificent for those who are trying their hand at cooking the cuisine at home.
Yum Yum Cakes & Pastries
Where: Yum Yum Cakes & Pastries is located at 2680 S. Havana St., Aurora.
Hours: It is open Monday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. and Sunday 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
The Lowdown: Considering the bounty of Korean cuisine at large, it should come as no surprise that the dessert is fantastic. Yum Yum cakes and pastries is a lovely spot to stock up on pastries, macarons and cakes from the East Asian state. The red bean and Bavarian cream bun ($1.75) combines dessert traditions both East and West for a result that will be comfortingly familiar to local diners while the red bean adds just enough unconventional flavor to differentiate it from an American or European pastry. The ambiance is nice — two giant teddy bears lay claim to seats at one of the tables, making the place a pleasant hangout for kids. To wash it all down ita also serves boba, coffee and tea.