Korean food! Of all the types of cuisine I’ve stumbled upon, there is none that I crave as often or as voraciously as Korean. There is something soul-nourishing about digging into a bubbling cauldron of peppery seafood soup, or nibbling on a plate of freshly grilled Korean-style short ribs. The variety of tasty side dishes(banchan) that traditionally accompany the meal add to the experience, and take an already great meal over the top.
Because I love Korean food so much, I have traveled the valley and sampled quite a few places. This weekend I went with my Brother, Sister-in-Law and friend to one of my favorites, Chodang Tofu and BBQ! Let me tell you a bit about the dishes we had and then follow up with how it compares to other Korean food around the valley.
Chodang Tofu and BBQ: 501 N Arizona Ave, Chandler, AZ 85225.(480) 855-7712
The first items to hit our table were Banchan, which are the small side dishes served alongside the rest of the meal in Korean restaurants. They often rotate, depending on the restaurant, but typically will include some sort of Kim Chi, Cooked or Marinated Vegetables, and salads of raw sprouts or apples. The banchan we received included traditional Kim Chi, a fresh radish and cucumber Kim Chi, some sweet and spicy sauteed potatoes, crispy creamy apple salad, dressed bean sprouts and crunchy seaweed snacks. Most of these dishes are typically served at Chodang, with the potatoes being the only one I haven’t seen prepared this way before. It tasted like a spicy German potato salad, and was quite tasty.
I definitely wanted to try an order of Korean style dumplings(Mandu), while we were here. I decided to try the Mul Mandu, a boiled dumpling, instead of my usual fried choice. I should warn that dumplings are probably my favorite food in the world, which does make be a little more critical than most. These Mul Mandu were probably the least enjoyable dish during our visit. They tasted weak and watery, and the sauce served with them was equally weak, lacking a hit of vinegar or spice that I’m accustomed to in a good dumpling sauce. Either the filling or the sauce needed a punch of flavor to rescue the dumplings, but sadly, neither delivered.
Bulgogi, Korean marinated and grilled beef, is the dish that first introduced me to Korean food. It has a warm place in my heart, and probably a nice chunk of real-estate in my love handles. I’d estimate no less than 100 Bulgogis have made their way into my belly, so I feel fairly confident in my ability to critique them. Chodang’s Bulgogi is very soft and saucy, with more sweetness than most. It didn’t have the caramelization from a grill, so i’m guessing they’re cooked in a pan or flat-top instead of over a fire. That being said, I still found it to be a flavorful winning dish that i’d order again. We ordered it served with lettuce wraps, and accompanied with the traditional fiery ssamjang chile sauce.
Another staple of Korean cuisine is Seafood and Tofu Soup, also known as Sundubu Jjigae. The spicy soup is delivered in an earthenware bowl, and has an egg cracked into it while still bubbling. It is loaded with small shrimp, clams, mussels and soft tofu. This is a dish that Chodang knows how to do well. The clams and shrimp aren’t overcooked, and the broth is packed full of spicy, shrimpy flavor. If I had to criticize one thing it would be… hmm, nope. Nothing to criticize, just get me another bowl!
Korean Style Short Ribs, Galbi, are different from other ribs you may enjoy. They are frozen and sliced horizontally into thin pieces instead of along the bone. Once sliced they are marinated and grilled to order. Chodang’s Galbi are smokey and tender, with just enough sweetness as to not overpower the meatiness. If I were to chose between the Bulgogi and the Galbi at Chodang, I’d tip my hat at the Galbi.
The final offering we enjoyed was the Osam Bulgogi, a giant plate of spicy pork and squid. I’ve had this dish a number of times before, and I like to order it heavy on the pork. The squid is nice, but the texture can get overwhelming without lots of the soft pork to balance it out. I ordered this dish “hot” and it did have a decent amount of fermented red pepper flavor, but I’d hesitate to call it “really” spicy. This is one of my favorite dishes of Chodang, and a nice balance to the sweeter marinated Bulgogi and Galbi.
My overall thoughts about Chodang are that it’s a great “all-around” Korean dining experience. The Seafood Tofu soup really knocks it out of the park and holds it’s own against any other in the valley. The grilled meats are good, but it can’t compete with other restaurants that have the burner in the center of the table where you can really char the meat up. I consider Chodang a sure-thing for Korean dining, where most of the other restaurants really shine in one dish over another.
Here are several other Korean options around town, and a brief summary of their strengths:
Cafe Ga Hyang: 4362 W. Olive Ave, Glendale, AZ 85302, (623)937-8550
This is really the promised land of Korean food in Phoenix, as far as i’m concerned. There’s such an authentic quality to the food. You can find Ssamgyeopsal(Grilled Pork Belly), Soups for 2(large enough for at least 6 people), interesting Banchan and Kung Pao Shrimp?! Not a traditional Korean dish, but instead a remnant of the previous establishment that is really damn good. If it wasn’t on the opposite side of the valley, I would probably visit Ga Hyang a couple times a month. If you want more info on Cafe Ga Hyang, follow this thread on Phoenix Food Nerds!
Korean BBQ: 2711 South Alma School Road, Mesa- (480)777-0300
This creatively named Korean BBQ is equipped with proper table grills, and their focus is definitely on the grilled meats. They do have other traditional Korean staples on their menu, but in the past, my experience with the non-BBQ has been very hit or miss. I’d stick with the BBQ here, and maybe finish the evening with a couple rounds of beers and soju in their two, well-equipped, private Karaoke rooms.
Hodori: 1116 South Dobson Road, Mesa- (480)668-7979
Hodori was my first exposure to Seafood Tofu Soup, and they really do a good job of it. The Bulgogi was lackluster on my last visit, and the service seems to have taken a turn for the worse on my last couple visits. I hope they’ve been isolated incidents, but with so many other decent Korean options nearby, I haven’t needed to go back to check.
Takamatsu is next on my list of Korean places to check out. What other Korean gems are there in the Phoenix area that I haven’t mentioned? Any favorites that I need to visit?