Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Why kimchi on a burger makes perfect sense

A Seoul Burger with veggie patty and garlic fries, January 2011
A Seoul Burger with veggie patty and garlic fries, January 2011
Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/Flickr

While food bloggers and food consumers on Twitter buzzed last week over the Sushirrito (exactly what it sounds like, though only in San Francisco at the moment) I contented myself with a more humble creation from an L.A. mini-mall, that environment which never fails to produce some of our fair city's finer homegrown concoctions. And this one couldn't be more L.A.: The Korean hamburger.

Foodies who frequent Koreatown aren't strangers by now to Kalbi Burger, a tiny burger shop tucked into a strip mall at Wilshire Boulevard and Wilton Place. It opened last summer, just as I was getting my bearings moving back to town, so it had been on my to-do list a while.

Here's what's different about the burgers at Kalbi Burger, as explained in Serious Eats' burger blog A Hamburger Today:

I'm probably going to get the explanation of the name a little wrong so I encourage those in the know to give us the heads up in the comments, but I'll try to do it a modicum of justice. Kalbi Burger is named after the Korean dish most familiar to Americans: barbecue. Kalbi (or galbi) while literally meaning "rib" can actually refer to a number of different grilled dishes.

The kalbi referenced here is the Korean marinated short rib. Traditionally made with Korean soy sauce, garlic and sugar, it can also get a little kick from some rice wine, sesame oil, and chili paste. It's a savory and sweet flavor that is, quite simply, delicious. Does it work for a burger? Depends.

I'll admit that I shied away from the meat this time. But a veggie patty suited my Seoul Burger (sauteed kimchi, red onions, American cheese, romaine lettuce and Thousand Island sauce) just fine. There were also some very, very garlicky, very good garlic fries. Much like with the Cuban cuisine I grew up with, expect any promise of garlic on the menu of a Korean eatery to be kept.

The best takeaway? Learning that kimchi - spicy, savory, garlicky, vinegary - is the perfect hamburger condiment. It should be a staple at burger bars. Fuddruckers ought to buy it by the crate. McDonald's should synthesize it and package it in little squeezable packets.

It made that veggie burger. Next time, I'll get the courage up to try it on the real thing.