8008 Girard Avenue #210, La Jolla
(No longer in business.)
You do not find a lot of Korean restaurants west of the 5. Maybe the cuisine’s not as popular as I imagine it to be. Maybe sundubu jjigae will never be the next ramen, doomed by the less appealing translation, “soft tofu stew.” Whatever the reason, the closer you get to the ocean, the further removed you are from authentic Korean food.
With one exception. Little Korea can be easy to miss. The second floor restaurant is accessed through one of those narrow staircases off Prospect Street near the cove. As such, the ocean view from its dining patio could be generously termed “partial.” But it’s there. Dining alone, I had no trouble perching myself at a simple outdoor counter where I could gaze past palm trees at the bluffs of Black’s Beach in the distance.
The “Little” part of the name proves just as accurate as “Korea.” This isn’t a grand La Jolla dining destination, just a cozy, low key restaurant offering traditional dishes such as bibimbap, bulgogi, and sundubu jjigae, or tofu soup as it’s called on this menu. Aside from the high rents and ocean nearby, this place could hold down a Convoy Street address.
Most of the menu stays under ten bucks, offering several protein options topping its variety of stews and rice dishes. I couldn’t resist the $17 dinner combo that allowed me to try both the sundubu jjigae and hot stone bibimbap.
It’s a pretty cheap setup, especially given the neighborhood. One way this place makes it work is a self-service banchan bar. The small bar doesn’t offer some of my favorite Korean side dishes, but the kimchi and pickled vegetables are tasty enough if you don’t overdo it.
The pork dumpling tofu stew came first, the stone bowl too hot to touch. A whole egg came with it, which I promptly cracked into the red broth so it could poach while the stew cooled to a remotely edible temperature. The bulgogi bibimbap bowl also sizzled, the rice topped by fresh greens, carrots, cucumber, lettuce, mushrooms, mung bean sprouts, and scrambled egg.
I got into that one first, the savory sweet beef of the bulgogi brought the most to the experience, as the vegetables were only lightly seasoned, if at all. I’m accustomed to adding quite a bit of hot sauce every time I order bibimbap. I like this dish for the healthy dose of veggies it brings, and the tofu or kimchi versions are a nutritious lunch for vegetarians, but it’s not exactly bursting with flavor.
The tofu stew ramped it up a bit. The broth tasted of smoked chili, and while the tofu wasn’t as soft as I hoped, it held that flavor well. On its own I’d call it fairly good. However, once the pork dumplings got involved, the combination elevated my response to “more, please.” As with the bibimbap, the choice of protein will determine how well this one goes over. But it might take something more than tofu and veggies to wring the most enjoyment out of that broth.