Think of Korean cuisine as a great thrill ride for the palate, the culinary equivalent of extreme sports: the blasts of chiles, the improbable juxtapositions of pungent and sweet, the fermented intensity of it all. In Korea, the food culture is so complex and so specialized that whole streets—even neighborhoods—are devoted to one particular item, such as octopus sashimi, soondubu (fresh, unpressed tofu), or goat hot pot with shiso leaves. Here multi-story grill houses rise like barbecue theme parks. Order a dish—any dish—and your table overflows with tiny plates of panchan, Korea's no-charge answer to tapas: kimchi by the dozen, marinated raw crab, mountain roots in sweet, gingery soy sauce, fish roe glistening with sesame oil.
In the U.S., scores of nouvelle-Korean boîtes are popping up, and familiar favorites as bulgogi (grilled beef) and bibimbop (rice with marinated vegetables) are just the beginning. Sit at a smoky tabletop grill and sizzle a sugary ribbon of butterflied short rib. Wrap it in a crisp, cooling lettuce leaf, dab on some chile paste, and pop the whole thing in your mouth. Pair it with a shot of soju, a mellow vodka-like spirit made from rice, barley, wheat, millet, and sweet potatoes, and a bite of sinus-clearing kimchi—nirvana for your palate.
WHERE TO EAT IT
AT HOME Soju 1745 W. North Ave., Chicago; 773/782-9000; dinner for two $48. Authentic kimchi pancakes, tofu-filled mandu (dumplings), and mixed vegetable chap chai (sautéed vermicelli) at a hip Wicker Park restaurant.
ABROAD Hanilkwan 119-1 Cheong Jin-dong, Seoul; 82-2/732-3735; dinner for two $70. On the edge of the artsy neighborhood of Insadong, you'll find delicious grilled meats, pine nut—stuffed cabbage kimchi, and ginseng salad—all with cold plum tea.