While I love a lavish weekend brunch at Sqirl or Gjusta, or a low-lit dinner at Bavel or Majordomo, I frankly do not have the budget or the time to pursue L.A.’s upper-crust cuisine. My weekend brunches are leftover slices of pizza eaten at 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and my low-lit dinners are bowls of mac and cheese eaten in the blue glow of my laptop. Instead, I gravitate toward the late-night diners, the taco trucks, the street hot dogs consumed past midnight in a glittery, uninhabited city. Some of the best food is delegated to the nightcrawlers, the college students, the graveyard shift workers — all hiding under the guise of a 2 a.m. closing time.
In my pursuit of midnight meals, I have found myself in one part of the city over and over again: Koreatown. At some point — maybe due to its culture, maybe due to its location — Koreatown has become a premier late-night food spot. Korean barbecue joints are more full at 1 a.m. than 1 p.m. Karaoke bars and nightclubs flood with soju, snacks and drunk patrons, all eager to extend the night until the early morning. In many ways, Koreatown feels like a daring rebel against the sleeping city.
And, while I’ll never turn down an opportunity to sit around a hot grill with mountains of bulgogi and galbi, I am more often sitting in front of a bubbling pot of soondubu jjigae, or kimchi and tofu stew, at a tofu house.
Koreatown has not one but two locations of the popular chain BCD Tofu House, which primarily serves stone pots full of soondubu as well as other Korean classics like bibimbap and bulgogi. Go to the bigger one. It’s always more fun.
Somehow, at all hours of the day, it’s busy. After a concert at the nearby Wiltern, or a big party night, crowds will file in after everything else has closed. Here, they are served first with plates full of banchan, small side dishes, like fish cakes, pickles and kimchi. Newcomers, especially those new to Korean food, may gasp when a waitress places a whole fried fish in front of each person, bones and all.
When inebriated, the fried fish is both a challenge and a reward: Eat the head? Just the tender flesh? Try to eat the eyeball? Some customers will eat the entire fish, the bones a mere obstacle, without a moment of hesitation. I am not one of those customers.
In a way, the whole fried fish represents much of the experience at BCD Tofu House. Will you crack the uncooked egg into your boiling pot of soondubu and watch it cook as the soup cools? Will you crack it into hot rice and mix the stew in with it? Will you break up bites of hot broth and kimchi with pickles or fish cakes? Will you finish your meal with the rice porridge made out of the stone pot your rice was served in?
BCD Tofu House offers no answers to these questions but simply presents them as options. The soondubu itself is hot and satisfying, with smooth pieces of soft tofu mixed with kimchi, sometimes with protein or vegetables, always boiling hot and served with fluffy rice. Combined with the banchan, BCD Tofu House is a perfect mix between drunk food and health food, satisfying and colorful enough to please even the most inebriated. With two locations mere feet apart, BCD has successfully conquered the Koreatown late-night food scene.
Though my fragile budget and class-littered schedule doesn’t always permit a food-centric lifestyle, BCD Tofu House is a cheap, delicious 1 a.m. option. At least once a semester, usually more, I find myself sitting in front of a table of banchan, waiting for my stew, tired but happy all the same.
Christina Tiber is a senior writing about food. Her column, “Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself,” runs every other Thursday.