How Korean Cuisine Got Huge in America (And Why It Took So Long)

Cabbage and daikon kimchi. Robyn Lee

It's no news by now that the Korean kitchen has officially made landfall in the United States. The signs of culinary conquest are everywhere. Bulgogi has entered the food-lovers' lexicon, up there with umami and bao. Korean barbecues have become staples in most major cities, joining the ranks of hibachi grills and sushi bars. Korean burgers and tacos are a whole genre of American fast food (you can now get them at T.G.I. Friday's). Kimchi is the new miso.

The rise of Korean food in America is the latest in a string of East Asian influences on the American diet. And, like every great food awakening, it began with baby steps but is just now taking its place among more established immigrant cuisines. What took so long?

If you go by the numbers, Korean cuisine's influence far outpaces its immigration patterns. Chinese immigration to the U.S. skyrocketed after quotas were removed in 1965, accelerating the generations-long process of food assimilation. The same goes for Japan, as its "Lost Decade" in the 1990s, a time of economic and cultural stagnation, pushed its food culture westward, introducing mainstream America to its future sushi obsession. But the Korean cuisine boom of the past few years can't be explained the same way.

Cabbage and daikon kimchi. Robyn Lee

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Korean immigration to the United States also spiked, as the economy back home stagnated. With an immigrant population of just over 1 million in 2007, only a quarter of those immigrants have arrived here since 2000, as the Korean peninsula witnessed a rebirth in economic activity. Even with an ethnicity that makes up 2.7 percent of all immigrants here in the States, Korean food's popularity rose much later than these demographics would suggest, at least in comparison to its East Asian counterparts.

But to Matt Rodbard, a contributing editor of Food Republic at work on the cookbook Koreatown, U.S.A., this wasn't an accidental delay—actually, Koreans just didn't care to play catch up. "Korean restaurants, at first, were more of a clubby environment, for Koreans, by Koreans," he told me. "There wasn't really much of an effort to draw in non-Korean guests."

In his book, Rodbard ventures to explain this phenomenon, and contrasts the relative insularity of Korean restaurants to Thai cuisine in the 1990s and 2000s, which catered to outside cultural pressures and formed a nearly-standardized menu in restaurants across the country. The incoming Thai population sought to create a bulletproof dish that chefs and restaurateurs knew would appeal to the masses. That dish was pad Thai—the ketchupy-sweet version you can find in many Thai restaurants in the U.S., not the more balanced (and less sugary) kind you can find in southern Thailand.

Budae jjigae, a large-format spicy stew full of everything from kimchi to hot dogs. Robyn Lee

But Korean chefs didn't want a pad Thai. "The food wasn't marketed at all," Rodbard explained. "They didn't have to make the egg roll or something like that to fit in."

As a result, Rodbard argues, Korean cuisine is virtually "unspoiled" in American restaurants, with no pad Thai or General Tso's Chicken equivalent. That's great for purists curious about traditional Korean cuisine, but it also slowed down the timeline of acceptance by the greater American population.

"We didn't have many Korean chef-run restaurants until five years ago," says chef Hooni Kim of the acclaimed Danji and Hanjan in New York. "Chef-owned restaurants are the key to growing a cuisine. [Japanese chefs] taught Americans what real sushi was." Aside from the food, the chefs bring the brand, too: with his Momofuku, for example, David Chang has made a name for himself, with an empire of restaurants that draw some of the city's most enduring crowds.

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Hanjan's take on pajeon, a Korean seafood pancake. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Born in Seoul, Kim's family, like thousands of other Koreans, ended up in New York City, at a time when the now-famous Korea Town—a strip of turf in Midtown Manhattan, birthed from the late mid-century immigration, that has everything from Korean karaoke to Korean fast food piled into a couple blocks—was not the safest place to be on a Friday night. Years later, Kim said, the only major change in K-Town has been the plummeting crime rate, which has since opened the area up to a more mainstream audience, thus cementing the neighborhood as a destination food hub like Flushing or Jackson Heights.

It was in these tiny K-Town restaurants, at around 2 or 3 a.m., where many of New York's food industry first tried the then-hidden cuisine of Korea. "Imagine it's the end of your shift, you're cleaning up, and you and the other cooks want to go out," said Rodbard. "Your options are limited; you want something affordable where alcohol is available. K-Town is an all-night event, where the food translates into a late night meal."

Soon enough, K-Town became this past-midnight escape, filled with flavors most chefs were not regularly tasting at the time. "When you're trying 28 paellas all day, you want something else," Rodbard added. "It becomes this natural progression from the kitchen to K-Town."

New York's K-Town at night. Robyn Lee

It certainly happened to Kim. "I remember after working at French restaurants and tasting butter all day, I would crave Korean food every night," he said. "I think Korean food is a great opposite from the rich European food New York chefs work with."

Though New York City's K-Town is one of the country's flashiest, it's hardly an isolated example. LA, Atlanta, Fort Lee, Houston, and many of other cities all have robust Koreatowns of their own. And Korean flavors are making their way into more and more non-traditional restaurants. Kim's, for instance.

His first, Danji, dishes out a Korean take on small plates in burgeoning Hell's Kitchen on the other side of Manhattan, while his second restaurant, the more upscale "Korean gastropub" known as Hanjan, has a menu categorized by 'modern' and 'traditional' in the fashionable Flatiron District. Both neighborhoods draw distinctly different crowds than K-Town restaurants.

Spicy rice cakes at Momofuku Ssam Bar, a take on traditional ddeokbokki. Robyn Lee

Non-Korean chefs haven't been far behind. Take Chris Cipollone, the chef of Piora in the West Village. On a mostly Western/Italian menu, he relies on Korean ingredients for punch, or as he puts it, something "refined that still captures a rustic appeal." His most popular dish is a plate of bucatini cooked with funky preserved black garlic, Dungeness crab, maitake mushroom, and chilis. "Using some Korean ingredients has caused some intrigue for sure, but I think it stems from the way we use them."

To Cipollone, Korean and Italian cooking traditions are more similar than you'd think: "The usage of what's around you, knowing when to preserve or to serve fresh. Both countries are very regional; every area has the thing that they specialize in."

Cipollone argues that American diners eased themselves into Korean cuisine through relatable ideas like the Korean barbecue, food trucks, and fried chicken. Once Americans became comfortable with these foundations, they were ready to dig deeper. "This has paved a way for people to understand and embrace the true Korean cuisine, and what it's really about," he said. "It's all about education and getting people excited."

Thinly sliced beef for Korean barbecue. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

As much as he dislikes the word, Cipollone isn't alone in his efforts to use "fusion" as an assimilation technique. Interestingly enough, one of the main routes to a full Korean embrace by a larger audience has actually become a concept of its own. Say hello to the Korean taco.

It's a pioneering idea that began inside of Roy Choi's Kogi truck, which supplied Los Angeles with, and eventually popularized, the form. The formula is simple: take what Americans love (tacos), switch it up a bit (replace carnitas with bulgogi, swap kimchi in for salsa), and get selling. While plenty of Asian chefs alter their dishes to fit the American palate, it took Korean food to put it in a tortilla—to recreate a cornerstone of American cuisine through a new lens.

Though Choi is one of the food truck movement's icons, he hasn't stopped there. Kogi's success gave him the platform to keep marketing Korean food in new ways. Now, if you want a look at the future of American comfort food, consider: packaged ramen and poached egg, topped with a slice of American cheese and packed in a thermos for room service, just one of many items Choi offers at Pot, his new restaurant at the Line hotel in LA's Koreatown.

A packed house at Pocha 32 in New York's K-Town. Robyn Lee

Over on the East Coast we have Korilla Barbecue and Phil Lee's Kimchi Taco, the latter of which launched in 2008 and 2010, selling flavors like fresh kimchi in Mexican tortillas to a growing community of street food obsessives. Both trucks are still on the streets, but now Lee has a place he can call home at his Brooklyn brick-and-mortar outpost, where he's plotting his worldwide takeover: "My goal is for everyone in America and the world to have a jar of kimchi in their refrigerator."

"My method is to make Korean food more accessible by simplifying it," Lee told me. "And approachable through food trucks and as street food but not changing the main Korean flavors. I take the best flavors (Korean barbecue and kimchi) in Korean food and highlight them."

Though its flavor is less compromised, kimchi finds itself in the same role as pad Thai: an introduction for American eaters to a whole new world of flavors. It comes at a time when the American palate is bolder than ever before, when sriracha is a condiment as beloved as ketchup and salsa. And it's working. Lee reports that his customers frequently tell him how his food sent them on a mission to hit K-Town themselves to see what else Korean cuisine has to offer.

Korean-style fried chicken is another easy entrance point to Korean cuisine. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

"Korean food was eventually going to be discovered," Lee explained. "It was introduced in the U.S. before Thai and Vietnamese food but it never caught on for various reasons. Higher price points (i.e. spending $30 to $40 per person on Korean barbecue) and strong flavors (traditional stews, soups, and even kimchi) were overwhelming when people tried Korean food for the first time." But a more adventurous dining public is overcoming those limitations.

Rodbard thinks that delay has only worked in Korean cuisine's favor, as it has several facets that sit in the crosshairs of some modern-day diet crazes. "It's a low-impact cuisine," he said. "It's also a very metered diet. It's what a Western diner wants in 2014."

At a quick glance, you have a diet that is almost entirely free of gluten and dairy, with a hefty serving of vegetables and seafood. Oh, and for the paleo types, it's a meat-lover's dream come true, with enough dak galbi, makchang, and ssam to go around.

Korean barbecue. Chris Hansen

Kim argues that Korean cuisine makes it all too easy for newcomers to fall in love with variety, with something for omnivores, herbivores, and carnivores alike. "Your five flavors—sweet, salty, sour, acidic, and spicy—are all encompassed in a single dish. Korean food delivers flavor right off the bat with all these different flavors, without [you] having to look for them."

Chinese take out and sushi restaurants don't have to worry for now, but Korean food's impact on the American diet is only getting bigger. Kim puts it this way: "if Japanese food was a romantic comedy, Korean food would be an action movie." And big, bold action movies have a way of doing well.

"I think Japanese food has achieved the greatest success story in America," Kim said, as if admitting a secret he's long kept under wraps. "I'm jealous. I can't wait for Korean food to get there. I know it can."