Korean restaurants in Melbourne
Everyone knows that meat grilled over charcoal is exponentially more flavoursome than other forms of cooking. Yes, a gas barbecue will get the job done, but there’s an extra smoky depth that can only be achieved when charcoal is your fire-power. And this is why we love Hwaro, the Korean barbecue joint on Little Collins Street. Here, you do your cooking over individual cast iron pots filled with red hot coals that they bring out to your table (this is a restaurant where you always want to be looking where you’re going). It’s not Korean barbecue without beef ribs (gal-bi), and here you can order them thin and bony, standard cut, premium marble or top grade. You unfold the marinated rib meat from around the bone before you put it on the grill plate and it cooks quickly and evenly, with the perfect amount of char on the outside.
With so many culinary stunners on Smith Street, it's easy to forget other restaurants who have been going at it without the continued hype that surrounds other establishments like Messina and Huxtaburger. White Kimchi is one such restaurant. Run by James Lee and his family, White Kimchi does simple and classic Korean fare. You'll want to get their bibimbaps here, which can be served in a regular or dolsot (hot stone) bowl, which gives the rice a lovely crusty bottom layer and cooks the raw egg into the contents of your rice bowl.
Gami Chicken is at its cheap best when you take a lot of people – that way you can get a keg of beer to share ($49 for 4 litres) and a whole chook for $32 (original, soy-garlic or sweet chilli coated), which will feed three to four depending on gluttony levels. Move over Colonel Sanders, Gami's taking over.
Hot corn tea. It’s a real thing and it tastes just as husky and buttery as it sounds. Sweet little pitchers of the stuff are on hand to temper the spicy bulgogi burn at the newer, bigger, pinker branch of Seoul Soul. There’s a little extra space here – two long communal tables run the length of the room with little block partitions separating couples like groceries in the supermarket. Most everything else you love about Victoria Street’s friendliest Korean restaurant has made the trip on High Street Northcote. Meal buckets are just as charmingly named and just as impressive: big wooden vessels packed with rice, salad, thinly sliced and sizzled meats or tofu (which they grill in the kitchen – there are no table barbecues which means your clothes remain smoke free) and plenty of pickles plus spring rolls. Kim chi and extra pickles are served in cute little jars for embellishing.
This alley off Collins Street is killing it lately. The folks behind ragingly popular café Purple Peanuts have just opened Pallet out the back serving ace coffee, Italian salads and Japanese teriyaki beef burgers, and a few doors down is Chick-In – a copper and wood Korean joint flogging fried chicken, jugs of Brunswick Bitter and Kenny G’s greatest hits. They do that poultry every which way here. You can take yours as lightly battered wings slicked in a sweet soy glaze, and we’re pretty keen to come back for the Korean schnitzel. For us though, it’s all about the gang jung. Here you get a pile of spicy potato wedges, juicy nuggets of Korean fried chicken breast and thigh and fat chewy rice noodles all captured in a sticky sweet chilli sauce. It’s like the genius invention of a stoned teenager, bar the large heap of mirin-dressed coleslaw, piquant pickled daikon cubes and salted cucumber rounds to defibrillate your tastebuds.
Sisters Seon Mi and Seon Joo Lee, vegetarians from meat-loving South Korea, established Yong Green Foods in late 2009. Adapting elements of Korean, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican and Italian cuisines into a unique menu with an emphasis on raw and wholefoods, the restaurant was an almost instant success. The raw menu, which includes their signature dish rawsagne, is completely organic, vegan and gluten free. The Lees make their own almond milk and fresh fruit smoothies, which are available along with a selection of intriguing Asian teas.
If you've never tried bibimbap – that Korean dish of rice with a neat moat of braised meat, vegetables, fried egg and pickles for DIY mixing – Seoul Soul is the place to hit it. Not because it's the best bib in town, although the tangy mix is excellent if a little sweet, but because the crew here are just so unabashedly thrilled to be showing off So-Ko cuisine. Pickles, crunchy shelled pork dumplings and sticky barbecued ribs are all presented with the sort of puff-chested pride usually reserved for nailing parking manoeuvres – and finishing really hard Sodukus. It’s so nice, we’d be going back even if they weren’t selling meal buckets. But they are, and you want one.
Kong is Chris Lucas's latest queue-magnet, this time in Korean, Japanese and American barbecue flavour, and it’s everything you come to expect from the group who brought you Chin Chin and Baby. Fluorescent lights shine down on blonde communal tables, cooks are in baseball caps, and cutesy panda icons line the walls. Kong delivers exactly the sort of high-octane sweet-and-spicy dumplings, buns and ribs you want, plus chef Ben Cooper officiates over the culturally ambiguous menu. It might be a vegan snack of crunchy iceberg lettuce rafts mounted with yuzu-infused eggplant, fine threads of fried onion and sesame seeds – refreshing, if a little heavy on the sweet miso dressing.
South Korean soft serve shop Milkcow is already big in South East Asia and they began their Australian expansion with a pop-up shop at the Strand. It proved so popualr and people were so into their soft serves with sweet toppings ranging from their signature honeycomb to a whole fluff of fairy floss that they've made the joint permanent. To amp up the deliciousness, Milkcow has also collaborated with local traders Naked Truth Chocolates and Sensory Lab for your chocolate and coffee fix.
The main players
Where the Japanese have donburi, the Koreans have bibimbap. This rice dish – which literally translates to ‘mixed rice’ – has your meat and three (or more) veg covered in one bowl and is the Korean answer to leftovers. Steamed white rice is typically served in a regular or hot stone bowl (this makes the bottom layer of rice nice and crusty), topped with julienned vegetables, kimchi, sautéed mushrooms and spinach, sprouts, and a protein, commonly tofu, chicken, beef, or a raw egg.
Korean fried chicken (dakgangjeong)
Korean barbecue (gogigui)
Korean barbecue is the epitome of communal eating – there’s just something special about gathering around an open gas grill flipping bits of sirloin steak or scotch fillet. A typical Korean barbecue sitting involves ordering a set meal that includes a selection of raw beef cuts, mushrooms and onions to toss on the grill. You’ll also get a side of rice, a hot stew, and some banchan (side dishes) including kimchi and cooked vegetables.
Korean food A-Z
Bap: Rice, the base of many Korean dishes
Banchan: The many side dishes that come with Korean meals; a great way to use up leftovers
Bulgogi: Literally translating to ‘fire meat’, this dish is centered on grilled marinated beef
Gochujang: Fermented chilli paste, a staple in Korean kitchens
Jjigae: A stew usually served alongside a meal. There a many variations of jjigae, which can be made vegetarian
Kimchi: spicy, garlicky, sauerkraut-like fermented wombok served as a condiment
Tteokbokki: Korea’s answer to gnocchi made of rice and fish cakes and smothered in a sweet and sour red sauce.
Soju: Literally translates to “burn liquor”. A spirit usually made of rice, wheat, or barley