In the past couple years, food trucks Coreanos and Chi’lantro have been bringing the flavors of Korea, in the form of decadent late-night snacks, to Austin's downtown revelers. Both trailers specialize in a hybrid of Korean-Tex Mex cuisine fit for a city where brisket-heads outnumber vegans, and queso consumption warrants 12-step programming.
If you find kimchi fries and bulgogi burritos tasty, you should really explore Korean cuisine in its pure form by checking out these locally-owned spots off the beaten (downtown) path.
This unassuming storefront in the Chinatown Center might just be the perfect place to go for your first Korean food experience. The enthusiastic, attentive staff will welcome you with open arms and all the banchan your heart desires! (Banchan is a term for the small side dishes traditionally served with Korean entrees including, but not limited to, cabbage and cucumber kimchi, marinated bean sprouts, pickled radish, salted seaweed, seasoned tofu and fish cake).
The seafood pancake is crispy and chewy in all the right places, loaded with squid and shrimp. The dol sot bibimbap is a well-orchestrated classic: veggies, beef and a perfectly fried egg come together over rice with a paella-like crust at the bottom, made golden-brown by the hot stone it is cooked against. LA-style kalbi (thinly sliced, bone-in short ribs) arrives at your table on a fragrant, sizzling platter. Come here for fresh Korean fare done well at a reasonable price.
10901 North Lamar Blvd.
Rockin’ Rice (Somunanjib)
Though still listed online as Somunanjib, the signage outside of this Han Yang Center cafe reads “Rockin' Rice." While the sign beckons “Let’s go bowling with rice,” don’t be fooled — the specialty here is Korean fried chicken. KFC is fried in olive oil, which results in a much thinner, crispy crust than its buttermilk-heavy American counterpart. Often the chicken pieces are coated in a garlicky or sweet, spicy sauce and accompanied by sweet pickled radishes.
A generous heap of chicken will run you about $15 and is sufficient to split with two friends. Slip into one of the tall booths and order the “hot ‘n’ spicy”— it’s surprisingly docile — and ask for extra napkins unless you have mastered the manipulation of saucy chicken between chopsticks.
Bonus points: It’s BYOB! Passionate Spirits is conveniently located next door for all your beer, sake or soju needs.
6808 North Lamar Blvd.
Manna Korean Restaurant
Also located in the Han Yang Center at Justin and Lamar, Manna Korean Restaurant welcomes you with a posted promise that you will find no MSG in any of the dishes. The no-nonsense staff will usher you to a table, insist you pick your purse up off the ground, and (maybe, if you’re lucky) stir your noodles the right way!
A rotating cast of banchan circulates the dining room via cart service, while Korean variety shows on the television battle the sizzling sounds in the kitchen. The menu has a little bit of everything, from rice porridge with pine nuts, abalone mushrooms or oysters to stir fries and sushi rolls, broiled fish and a variety of soups and jji-gae (stew). Several back tables offer Korean barbecue grills for gogigui, where diners can cook their own short ribs, pork belly or fish.
Shareable casseroles arrive at the table on portable gas stoves, chock full of seafood and meat combinations. Manna has some of the most comparable prices in town, with bibimbap and kimchi jji-gae (kimchi pot stew with pork) for only $5.99 and savory jajangmyeon (wheat noodles in black bean sauce with vegetables and meat) for $6.99.
6808 North Lamar Blvd.
Mom’s Taste Kitchen
Blink and you’ll miss the maroon awning between an Airport Blvd. insurance agency and a tai chi studio, but just follow the “Yellow Brick Road Center” sign and you’ll find your way to Mom’s Taste.
This spacious storefront carries pre-made to-go containers of bulgogi (thin strips of marinated pork or sirloin ready for grilling), japchae (spicy sweet potato noodles stir fried with vegetables), jangajji (salted and pickled vegetables marinated in sauce), soup, banchan selections like seaweed salad and fish cakes, kimchi and freshly rolled kimbap (rice and fillings rolled into seawood, much like sushi).
Don’t be surprised to see ingredients like aster and balloonflower roots listed as ingredients (all of which are in English and Korean!). One entire fridge focuses on items of the sea, like dried octopus, shredded squid and salt-pickled pollack.
Prices are more than reasonable, ranging from $2 for a side to $10 for a larger, shareable dish. Some pantry items are also available for purchase (curries, sauces, oils, rice, noodles).
6613 Airport Blvd.
Come with friends and expect to chow down at Chosun Galbi, Austin’s biggest (and most pristine!) Korean barbecue restaurant. Glossy wooden booths and long tables are perfect for large groups, and the barbecue options are meant for sharing.
Choose meat a la cart to grill at your table, such as heuh meat gu ee (thin sliced cow tongue, $18.99) and yang nyum dwe ji galbi (pork ribs with soy sauce, $18.99) or throw in for a family-sized variety like the mo dum gu ee (beef, pork, chicken, jumbo shrimp, $79.99).
Outside of barbecue, the menu runs the gamut of traditional Korean dishes from noodles to soups to rice dishes. Can’t decide? The soondubu jjigae combinations allow diners to pair silken soft tofu soup with various meat and seafood offerings. Dinner can definitely get pricey, but try it out on a budget by coming for lunch. Bento box lunch specials start at $6.99 and come with banchan as well!
713 E. Huntland Dr.
Not to be confused with the unrelated Triple 8 Vietnamese restaurant on South Oltorf, Misung 888 is open just as late (2 a.m.), but serves Korean comfort food like bossam (steamed pork wrapped in cabbage leaf, accompanied by kimchi, garlic and bean paste) and budae jjigae (spicy stew of Spam, hot dog, kimchi, rice cake and ramen) to the tune of dance pop.
Prices might seem steeper than the wood-paneled walls and strip mall locale may imply, but keep in mind one small sized stew ($16.99) comes atop a butane burner, accompanied by banchan, and serves about three people.
Regulars flock here for their popular gam ja tang (spicy pork neck potato soup) but stay late for bottles of Hite and kettles of soju (Korean distilled rice liquor), either straight up or infused with flavors like yogurt, cucumber and jalapeno…and if you’re lucky, your server might just take a shot with you!
911 W. Anderson Lane, Suite 114