Repeatable: Yes! Visits: 6+
Where’s the best Korean food OUTSIDE Korea? If you grew up second-generation Korean-American, the most likely answer would be, “At my mom’s house.” (Except for a friend of mine who hated Korean food when he was growing up. It wasn’t until he visited Korea that he realized he loved Korean food and that his mother was a terrible cook. But I digress.)
The second best place for Korean food outside Korea is Los Angeles. After that, most people would guess New York. But having eaten at all the top Korean restaurants in New York, I would have to insist that Kawon, a humble dive in Everett, Washington, kicks the pants off any Korean restaurant in the Big Apple (or Flushing).
A 40-minute drive north of Seattle’s city center, Kawon is hidden in a little strip mall behind an oil-change outlet. Once you actually find the restaurant, those very same barriers to entry will help you find it again with ease. And, believe me, you’ll be going there again. My two NYC-based sisters make it a point to stop at Kawon every time they visit Seattle. Utter Manhattan snobs, even they concede that the food there is better than anything in New York. In fact, Kawon is so much better than all the other Korean restaurants in the Puget Sound region that there’s no reason to eat anywhere else.
Here’s why Kawon is so repeatable:
Banchan Assortment: Kawon’s kitchen finesse is readily apparent in the astonishing array of top-notch side dishes that freely accompany any order of grilled meat. The kimchee is pungent, well-balanced, and superb. The dressed spicy cucumber slices are always fresh and perfectly seasoned, as are the mung bean sprouts, wilted spinach mix, and grated daikon. In addition to these, there might also be a little bowl of daikon cubes in salty brine broth (known as “water kimchee”), crunchy cubes of spicy daikon, brown fish cake slivers sauteed with peppers and onions, and quivering slices of beige acorn jelly, dressed with a spicy soy-sauce mix. If you order kalbi, you’ll also get a free side of spicy, stinky Korean miso stew–recommended only to advanced eaters and served to non-Koreans by request only. All of these dishes are wonderful, but the crowing glory of the banchan selection at Kawon is the fresh Romaine salad platter–torn leaves of Romaine and slivers of green onion tossed with a sweet and savory dressing of soy sauce, sesame, and chili paste. Don’t be alarmed by the heaping size of this salad, because you will finish it.
Grilled Meats: For most people, Korean food means barbecue–and Kawon scores sky-high on this measure. The yang-nyum kalbi here is presented in long strips attached to the bone for table-top grilling. The seasoning is finger-lickingly balanced–not too sweet, not too salty, not too garlicky. A great alternative to beef is the hyuk daeji saeng-gyup sal–or black pig pork belly. These chunky slices of bacon grill up meltingly tender-chewy and are addictive when dipped in the accompanying chili-miso paste. Children love eating “bacon” this way, along with a bowl of kelp soup and strands of sprout and spinach salad.
Kawon has many other dishes of note, including their famous savory pancake (haemul pae-jun), hot pot mixed rice (dolsut bibimbop), and in summer only, the best cold water noodle-soup I’ve ever had (mul naeng myun). There are also hauntingly delicious grilled whole fish dishes, mouth-watering stews, and spicy soups–all worth trying if you have a Korean friend who can help translate some of the specials that are posted on the walls in Korean.
If you don’t have a friend like that, send me an email. I just might be having a craving.