REVIEW: Kobunga Grill is convenient, authentic

Kobunga Korean Grill, a fast-food Korean barbecue restaurant, celebrated its grand opening at USC Village on Saturday. With homemade kimchi and classic Korean meat dishes as well as gluten-free and vegan side dishes, Kobunga provides tasty, filling meals while keeping up with the fast-paced college student lifestyle.

While eating at typical Korean barbecue restaurants can be a multi-hour experience, Kobunga Grill translates the traditional menu into a fast-food setting that fits an on-the-go lifestyle. Photo from Yelp.

Founder and CEO John Kim created the restaurant to make access to Korean barbecue more convenient. Most Korean barbecue restaurants charge a flat fee per guest and require customers to grill their own meat, meaning that a meal can take hours, especially if they want to get their money’s worth in meat. By simplifying the process to ordering from a set menu and waiting a few minutes to get fresh, hot food, Kim is able to bring the Korean barbecue experience to more people.

His business began with introducing Kobunga to Los Angeles’ night markets, such as the KTOWN Night Market and the 626 Night Market, and doing catering for entertainment companies such as Netflix and Hulu last year. The USC Village is Kobunga’s first permanent location, where guests can choose to create their own plate which comes with two sides, or select from a list of signature plates and salads.

Tender pork belly with burnt sugar crust and thinly sliced beef bulgogi are the most popular dishes, according to Kim. In fact, if you ask for the tender pork belly at around 6:30 p.m., they might already be sold out for the day. Still, the bulgogi is delicious when paired with roasted sweet potatoes and Korean cabbage slaw. For those who are overwhelmed by the vast amount of choices, however, you can’t go wrong with signature plates such as the USC Special, the Mama Kim or the Mama Cho.

Kim understands that people may be averse to some Asian cuisines because of dietary restrictions or certain ingredients. That’s why, with the exception of their meat dishes, Kobunga’s dishes are all gluten-free, vegan and do not contain fish sauce, dairy or MSG. Soft tofu with spicy garlic soy sauce is offered as a vegetarian option, and can also be ordered as the signature plate. Prices range from $9 to $12.

These delicious dishes are made by Stephen Cho, chef and COO of Kobunga. Through his cooking, he strives to share his Korean American heritage. Cho makes the kimchi side dishes himself, through the traditional Korean practice known as kimjang. During the winter, Koreans prepare ingredients such as white radish, garlic and ginger to stuff the pickled cabbage. While fermentation usually takes several days, Cho has shortened the process to one day in order to keep up with customer demand and provide fresh kimchi every day. Napa cabbage kimchi and cucumber kimchi pickles are available as side dishes, as well as honey roasted carrots, pickled jalapeños and sautéed corn.

In terms of beverages, customers can grab a can of Shikhye, Let’s Be Coffee and Sac Sac, or order plum lemonade, yuzu lemonade or seasonal iced tea (currently green tea). While the menu is still expanding to include more seasonal items, patrons have already taken express interest in Kobunga. In fact, on Wednesday, Kobunga will cater the celebration reception for the naming of the Bohnett Residential College at USC Village.

Although there is no seating inside the restaurant, guests can enjoy a take-out meal in the USC Village Piazza. Kobunga is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.