Many K-barbecue spots don’t accept solo diners — but don’t let that stop you.
Lost Angeles is a column about getting lost — and found — on solo expeditions in the city.
I sit writing this in the Simi Valley, waiting for my all-you-can-eat (i.e. AYCE) Korean barbecue order. For one.
It’s 7:40 p.m. on a Monday. I’ve driven over an hour to get here. Why Simi Valley? Well, Kimchi Korean BBQ, it turns out, has a pretty great AYCE deal: $17.50. For dinner. The price includes unlimited orders of corn cheese, Korean miso stew, steamed eggs and that spicy soft tofu soup, soondubu jjigae — all of which can incur an extra charge at non-AYCE restaurants. Most importantly — they accept solo diners.
A lot of Korean barbecue places don’t. Roy N., a presumably white male “in L.A. on business,” lamented this fact in a one-star Yelp review of Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong in Koreatown. He was denied admission. Tony K. responded on behalf of the business, patiently explaining that the two-person minimum is “commonly practiced in most Korean bbq restaurants.” Upon visiting Roy’s profile, I see that he went on to successfully eat at Quarters, another Korean barbecue institution.
The thing is, I’m on the restaurant’s side here. But I also get Roy’s frustration. Being told you can’t eat somewhere just because you’re alone — well, that sucks. To be fair, I don’t think this is actually a common occurrence. I’ve only experienced this once, in Toulouse, when I tried to order a pan of paella by myself. The chef, you could tell, felt sorry for me. He pointed to the conveyor belt sushi place down the block.
As anyone who likes to dine alone knows, the restaurant has to be lively, but not so much that you feel guilty lingering. You want a good amount of ambient noise, but not so much that you can’t read your novel.
A lot has been written about our society’s bias against singles. On this night, I carefully scoured Yelp to find somewhere I could dine alone. Somewhere I wouldn’t feel crowded, in a place not too brightly lit.
I could’ve come here with friends; with a partner. But I wanted to go by myself. As anyone who likes to dine alone knows — and you don’t have to be single to do it — the elements of the perfect solo spot are to be finely crafted. The restaurant has to be lively, but not so much that you feel guilty lingering. You want a good amount of ambient noise, but not so much that you can’t read your novel. It can’t be a place where you feel weird staring out in silence, enjoying the rhythm of your ruminations.
There’s a thrill that comes from the freedom of a buffet, the possibility of excess.
On a weeknight, Kimchi BBQ hits the spot. It sits in a strip mall, a stone’s throw from a McDonald’s. Darkly lit from the outside, I drove by it four times before I finally found it. Inside, it’s just crowded enough to be cozy. Netflix’s “Cheer” is on. I can’t hear the words; there’s music playing over it, but not too loud. I get a roomy booth all to myself. Maybe a third of the restaurant is filled; people come and go in waves.
The waiters are warm and the food is good. At least as good as what I’ve had in Seoul — there too I ate alone, at a raucous upstairs restaurant in Myeongdong, that Times Square-ish quarter. There are other Korean barbecue places in L.A. that are perhaps more popularly known: Park’s, Genwa, Oo-Kook. But I love the fact that this is AYCE; there’s the thrill that comes from the freedom of a buffet, the possibility of excess.
There are three price tiers. The highest, at $26.99, includes shrimp and scallops and is on par with Koreatown AYCE establishment Hae Jang Chon. While Hae Jang Chon does offer a couple more sides for a comparable price — kimchi pancakes, for example — the $17.95 option at Kimchi Korean BBQ is my new go-to. The doenjang jjigae alone is worth the price. I could slurp down a bubbling cauldron and go home happy. The Korean miso stew is made with doenjang, that umami-laden fermented soybean paste, and is thicker in consistency than traditional Japanese miso soup thanks to chunks of zucchini and onion. Paired with rice, it’s the perfect February-in-L.A. meal.
Halfway through dinner, two more solo diners arrive. At one point, it’s just the three of us in the restaurant, attending to our sizzling pork belly and mushrooms. It’s not lonely. It’s perfect.