Rant: Yelp reviews of Korean food

by

I’m sure this problem isn’t limited to Yelp, but I was looking up some Korean restaurants in California for a friend, and reading the reviews, I kept seeing over and over, “There were only 6 banchan dishes!” “There wasn’t enough variety in the small dishes!” “Wah wah wah!”

More than one reviewer, at a barbecue place in Los Angeles, complained that they had been served a dish of raw garlic and what were they supposed to do with that?

The banchen was disappointing!  They didn’t even have regular kimchi!!!  I’m like, really?  one of the dishes was just garlic… what the hell am I supposed to do with that?  eat it raw?? throw it on the fire?  either way I wasn’t gonna eat a whole clove of garlic, this is not the Stinking Rose… Would totally give it a 5 star if the banchen was better or if the menu’s larger.  We tried to order stuffs like rice cake or korean pancake, or even chap chae (clear noodles), they didn’t offer any of those things.  Very disappointing!  Definitely need to expand on the menu.

Maybe you should have asked.  You might have found out how delicious it is to grill whole garlic and that some people love garlic so much, they tuck it in raw when they wrap up their meat and their lettuce into a ssam.

Seolleongtang in Insa-dong, Seoul

Many, many restaurants in Korea do not serve a plethora of banchan.  When you get a steaming bowl of beef and tripe soup, where the shank bone has been simmered until the stock turns a milky-white, you don’t need any more banchan than two or three types of kimchi and maybe some greens.  When a restaurant makes good banchan, that’s a plus, but the number of banchan is not the criteria by which you should judge the restaurant!  To me, that’s like judging a Western restaurant for the variety in its bread basket.

A lot of Korean restaurants in the U.S., since they don’t specialize in a particular dish, do tend to put out a ton of stuff, most of which I think tends to be sub-par, like mayonnaise-based potato salad with apples and raisins.  I realize that I’m spoiled.  My mom makes great banchan and I’m not looking for it when I go out.

But to be upset because they didn’t serve chapchae or rice cakes?  You should judge the restaurant for its meat if it’s a barbecue joint, for its noodles if it makes noodles, for its dumplings if that’s what it claims it does best.  You don’t get mad because the pizza joint doesn’t serve hamburgers.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can admit, I’m a little worried about my own Korean food project.  There’s so much about Korean food and its values that don’t translate easily into American food-speak.  There are dishes that are bland and boring — they’re there to give your mouth a break from all the spicy excitement on the rest of the table.  But if you didn’t know that, if you just ate a big bowl of soybean sprout salad or kongnamul, you might think, “What?”

I’m not a restauranteur.  I don’t want to sell Korean food as a crowd-pleaser.  I just want to present it on its own terms, even the dishes I don’t personally like, because even those boring dishes are part of something bigger than “delicious.”  Is that crazy?

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20 Responses to “Rant: Yelp reviews of Korean food”

  1. Don Cuevas Says:

    YELP! I joined it for some forgotten reason, but I can’t stand to read the many puerile reviews written by ignorant narcissistic members.
    I go, like they are SO full of themselves.
    At the end of the day, Yelp is my last go to place for intelligent restaurant reviews.

    Thanks, Grace for letting me rant on your blog, and I got to use some of the YelpTalk that gives me the shudders.

  2. Grace Says:

    Ha ha, rant away! We’ll all rant together!

  3. Orlick Says:

    yeah, it’s funny how quick to judgement people are when given the bullhorn.

  4. Claire Says:

    Hmm that’s a tough one.. I feel like my sense of Korean food came from being immersed in the culture. It took awhile to understand how the different restaurants had very different menus (ie: a steamed pork with cabbage place, versus a kalbi place, versus a noodle place) and that I couldn’t expect to see the same things at each one. Here it would be like going for Greek versus Chinese, but maybe that’s part of it, people develop certain expectations of what Korean is based on the few places they have been. But the Chowhound discussions I see regarding Chinese food these days, for example, are all about where to find specific regional styles. I think as globalization takes hold people are looking for more nuanced experiences.

    I think it would be a real gift to North Americans to spend some time in your book on the philosophy of food in Korea.. I for one would love to know more. Plenty of foodies are ready for those concepts, just as they have embraced the idea of unami from Japanese cuisine. Remember those Yelp comments are by no means representative of the general population, personally I wonder about people with that many opinions:)

    ps- Couldn’t you describe the bland dishes as ‘palate cleansers’, an idea non-Koreans are familiar with?

  5. Grace Says:

    Thanks so much, Claire, for your thoughtful comment. I know it’s sort of silly of me to be annoyed when it’s true that with every new cuisine, there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. I read a great book on the history of restaurants in NY where the author talked about how edgy and ethnic Italian used to be! Can you imagine what Italians think of the Olive Garden? I guess I’ll know Korean food has arrived in this country when we have our own Korean Pepper Garden chain.

    Diane and I are definitely planning to include information on the philosophy of Korean food, not going on and on about yin and yang, but acknowledging the idea that food is not just about pleasure or even sustenance.

  6. Claire Says:

    Looking forward to reading more about it in your book! Some of the ‘tastes’ that I developed that surprised me: I now enjoy slimy, jelly-like food, ha ha.. and must admit I enjoyed the hwe with the very ends of the bones (and hence a bit of a blood taste) in it. I can’t believe I’m admitting that..

    On another topic, I was wondering about this today while chopping up tempeh, do you know the name of the corn that is fermented in blocks? I saw it at a monastery I was at, along with ones that were soy. I’m sure I was told the name but can’t remember.. Also, I can’t remember the name of that really funky dwenjang soup (kinda smells like feet, lol..). I loved that one.

  7. Grace Says:

    Claire, I have no idea what that corn is, but the really intensely smelly soup is cheonggukjang-jjigae. I think it tastes faintly of really stinky cheese 🙂 It’s a specialty of the area where my father grew up. My mom says the first time she had it, it was at my dad’s aunt’s home, and she was so horrified, she could barely eat it politely!

    It’s kind of fascinating to me that you developed a taste for foods you didn’t like at first. It’s so true about the slimy, jelly texture. Sometimes, when I’m writing up the headnotes for recipes, I wonder if I should just say “slimy” and trust the reader that I mean it in a good way!

  8. Diane Says:

    I must confess that though I’ve never posted on Yelp, it’s been helpful in showing what establishments are in specific areas.

  9. lina Says:

    i can’t stand the reviews that start off with “I’ve never eaten [insert ethnic cuisine] food but this place is the best!” really? come on…

  10. Grace Says:

    Though I have to say, I do appreciate when they say “I’ve never eaten…” because at least I know how to evaluate their review! That’s one thing Yelp really does well, encourage people to be detailed enough so that other people can figure out whether or not to discount their opinion 🙂

  11. annamatic Says:

    Yelp! Heh… I try not to read the reviews over there… Why so many whiners?

    It took me a little bit of time to grasp just how intertwined are the cuisine and the sense of community in Korea. Nowadays I can’t really see the point of going to Korean BBQ stateside, if I can’t have it in a greasy tent tended by a sweet imo who gives us free sidedishes because we’re her regulars. Sour-hot kimchi jjim just doesn’t deliver the right kick unless I’m sprawled on the floor of an old falling-down hanok with a couple of good friends.

    Perhaps that’s what’s missing from all the Korean food promos out there, that the whole process — where and how and who you eat with, the cooking at the table, the communal sharing, the interactive mixing and wrapping — it’s all just as much what makes it Korean as the ingredients in the food itself….

  12. Grace Says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, annamatic. I feel like it really clarifies my feelings about Korean food and food in general, the way most of the world eats compared to the way foodies sometimes eat. It’s what you were saying at lunch today, what makes something delicious? Is it inherent in the ingredients, the way the dish is cooked? Or is there something more in one’s attitude, the company? Korean restaurants rarely serve more than one major specialty, and it’s often served in a quantity that has to be shared. It’s so not about “have it your way,” more about “let’s eat together.” It can be exhausting at times, this relentless togetherness, but there’s something really beautiful that’s not expressed simply in a description of how something tastes.

  13. Anna Says:

    Two arguably “bland” Korean foods that I sometimes crave: kongguksu (craving that now, sprawled out like an elephant seal in calf in nearly 90 degree Oakland), and the thin soup made by pouring water into the crunchy burnt bits in the stone pot after removing the rice. Also, turnip soup. As a non native-eater, the words that would come to mind to describe their appeal are comforting or soothing. But then, I can’t say that I was ever a very successful evangelist of those standard LA Koreatown items among my other non-Korean co-workers.

    My classic WTF moment using Yelp was when looking up a Banh Mi place that had been recommended to me to find the location/hours, I saw that it had three stars. Scrolling through a number of very positive four and five star reviews to determine what the unsatisfied people didn’t like, I finally found a one star review. It lambasted the place for having… the worst bubble tea ever. As you said, the nature of the comments lets you weed out the ones you can disregard.

  14. Grace Says:

    Anna, I commend you for liking that turnip soup. I hate it 🙂 I love your story of eating at a Korean restaurant with a co-worker who said she doesn’t like anything spicy or pickled.

    I wish I could come to Oakland and make seaweed soup for you after you give birth!

  15. avisualperson Says:

    the finest cookbooks have a great story and great context; the opposite approach to your book as an example might be the book Curry Cuisine; it takes one “dish” and shows how the entire world interprets it, enlisting the help of experts from different countries and also providing historical context like how curry arrived in Japan or in London and created its own versions there. In a similar way that korean restaurants should not be catchall establishments where you can get your grilled kalbi AND your jajungmyun let’s say, you may need to provide a “slice” of korean cuisine for the entirety of your book, or else present all of the recipes and stories in different slices/angles; home food for the weekend, portable food for a mountain climb, special food for guests, and so on; feels utilitarian and in that sense, practical, realistic, and true. sets of recipes also work well for me, whereas reductionist categories like apps, mains and salads which may not exist in the framework of many cuisines just don’t make sense, yet english-language cookbooks for ethnic cuisines still use those as chapters. I’m reminded of the slim volumes of asian-language cookbooks where you have to buy the whole 10-volume set; each is a theme and I really like that as well.

  16. avisualperson Says:

    oh and yelp is dumb. good for looking up addresses though.

  17. Grace Says:

    It’s GREAT for looking up addresses 🙂 You know, the issue of categories has really been bedeviling me. Korean food has natural categories that go mainly by cooking technique, but I don’t think they’re even really useful to Korean people. The categories I’m going for are more, “Pick one from each and you’ll have a meal.”

    I’m glad to be working on a physical book, but I think the internet is going to be the best medium for expressing this kind of flexibility and fluidity. I can totally imagine a little app where as you pick a main dish, you can see what other dishes would go well with it to form a meal.

  18. eatinqueens Says:

    Here is some more restaurants list for you hopefully its help you to find restaurants and there menus in queens EatinQueens.com

  19. stock Says:

    Thanks for all your sharing.

  20. Shin Says:

    통마늘구이가 얼마나 맛있는데~!!!! 반찬이 많은걸 원하면 전라도 순천을 가서 백반집에서 먹어보세요 양도 많고 가짓수도 엄청많답니다 ㅎㅎ

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