Dak of the Town

Compared to its beef counterpart, dakgalbi—a spicy chicken dish popular in South Korea—goes easier on your heart and your pocketbook.

by Namju Cho
photographs by Cathy Choi

So you think you know galbi, that quintessential Korean barbecue meat that’s simultaneously salty and sweet with perfectly charred edges? Meet chicken galbi. Yes, you heard right. Dakgalbi, as it’s called in Korean, is immensely popular in South Korea, but, for some reason, has yet to take hold at Koreatown restaurants across this country, where there is a glaring lack of establishments that serve it.

This may have something to do with the fact that beef, a luxury item during Korea’s impoverished post-war days, has long been considered the premier meat among the people. But, given dakgalbi’s health benefits and deeply satisfying flavors, this alternative galbi deserves a place at the Korean American dining table.

Despite its name, there are no “ribs” per se in this dish, which consists of boneless chicken pieces marinated in a sweet and spicy sauce reminiscent of the Korean pork rib marinade (duejibulgogi), with flavors of red pepper paste (gochujang), garlic, ginger and sugar. At restaurants, the chicken is typically stir-fried table-side on a huge pan (although originally it was cooked on a charcoal grill), along with some rice cake cylinders, sweet potato strips and roughly chopped cabbage. It’s hearty without being too heavy, spicy without numbing your taste buds, with a bit of crunch from the chopped cabbage.

Now, dakgalbi shouldn’t be mistaken for dakbulgogi, which often appears on menus at Korean American barbecue restaurants. The dakbulgogi is prepared with the non-spicy marinade typical of the classic beef galbi. Dakgalbi, on the other hand, traces its origins to the northeastern province of Kangwon, South Korea, and is a relatively contemporary creation, so you won’t find it referenced in historical books on traditional regional specialties.

There isn’t one official story on how it came to be, but the most widely accepted tale is that one day in the 1960s, a Chuncheon city bar owner ran out of pork to serve his customers and quickly improvised with some chicken on hand, using the same spicy marinade one would use to prepare duejibulgogi.

The chicken galbi caught on and became especially popular among young people performing their mandatory military service at bases around Chuncheon, as well as college students, all of whom appreciated the more affordable prices, according to Kangwon province’s website. In South Korea, dakgalbi was soon dubbed “the poor man’s galbi” for its good value. The dish’s popularity swept the country, so much so that, in 1983, the city of Chuncheon declared an entire street in its bustling downtown area of Myungdong “Chicken Galbi Row.” Soon restaurants and bars serving dakgalbi cropped up everywhere in Seoul and nationwide. Today, the city hosts an annual festival—complete with cook-offs, food sampling booths, and music and dance showcases—dedicated to chicken galbi and a regional noodle dish.

What I find strange is the recent trend of adding curry powder and/or cheese to the chicken galbi. It’s a practice that certainly didn’t exist when I first tasted dakgalbi as a college student at Yonsei back in the day. The cheese is usually a cheap, stringy faux mozzarella that doesn’t enhance the flavor one bit. The curry powder, I presume, is a vain attempt at fusion. Though I’m hoping they’ll drop the curry powder/cheese trend, I look forward to the day when America embraces dakgalbi. Maybe we, too, could boast our own Chicken Galbi Row in the respective Koreatowns across the States.

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Where’s the Chicken?

Finding a restaurant that serves dakgalbi proved incredibly challenging even in the biggest Koreatown in the United States. In Los Angeles, it boils down to two restaurants: Mapo Dakgalbi on Olympic Boulevard and Choonchun Dakgalbi on Vermont Avenue.

The older of the two is Mapo, a hole-in-the-wall that’s been at its current location for years and features a chicken marinade of 36 ingredients. Of course, the server who stir-fried our dakgalbi table-side at Mapo refused to divulge a single secret ingredient, but hinted that a couple of fruits are mixed in for sweetness and tanginess. The restaurant places the marinated chicken on the hot pan first with sweet potatoes, then adds more secret red sauce, cabbage, carrots, jalapeños and, finally, some button mushrooms and kennip (perilla leaves), which add a peppery taste.

The newer of the two restaurants is Choonchun (the name references the South Korean city, Chuncheon, from which the dish originates, but romanizes the name differently), located in a Koreatown mini-mall. As with Mapo, the chicken is cooked tableside. I haven’t yet had a chance to sample the dakgalbi there, though L.A. Weekly food critic—and Korean food lover—Jonathan Gold described it as “…more meat than salad, more sweet than hot, more chewy than crisp” in a review last year.

Gold also noted what is often considered the finale of this chicken meal: the fried rice. After the chicken is consumed, rice is added to the grill, along with some diced kimchi and other banchan (side dish) leftovers. At Mapo, the server also added a slightly pickled carrot relish and sprinkled the finished rice with some dried seaweed strips. Whatever you do, make sure you save room for this fried rice because it is the best part of the meal, hands down.

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Choonchun Dakgalbi
703 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles
(213) 388-0285

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Mapo Galbi
3090 W Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles
(213) 487-2274