Kalbi Burger is Like the Korean Umami (or is it the Korean Counter?)
If given the choice between “authenticity” (whatever the hell that means) and “fusion” I will choose the former every time. Ethnic food that’s been watered down, or muddled, by the inclusion of some other cuisine is not my idea of a good time, and yet every once in awhile something “fusion-y” comes along that is too perfect to be mad at (and for some reason it seems to often involve Korean food.) Korean fried chicken is possibly the greatest invention of all time, Kogi started a food truck revolution, and now there is this: the newly opened Kalbi Burger, in Koreatown (which I first read about on LA Taco.)
Korean burgers are not exactly a new idea. Kogi serves Korean sliders on their truck, there’s a Bulgogi Whopper available overseas, and hell- even this fat white guy thought to throw some bulgogi marinade into his burgers for a Superbowl Party in 2001 (a no-brainer combo that was probably tried long before, and has been tried many times since.) But there’s something about Kalbi Burger that got me all excited. Maybe it was the Umami Burger looking orange and black sign. Or the fact that it’s not from a truck (there is something to be said about the permanence of a brick and mortar restaurant.) But either way, I was intrigued enough to head over there yesterday and eat my through most of the menu.
The menu at Kalbi Burger is divided between burgers, hot dogs, fries and (of course!) salads. There are 5 constructed burgers to choose from (with influences from Korea, Japan, Hawaii, and Vietnam) a chili cheese burger, a chicken burger (of course!) and a junior burger for those looking for something a bit smaller. The prices are decent too… $5.95 to $7.95, depending on which burger you order, and you can upgrade to a combo (fries and soda) for $2 more. They also have a very “Counter-esque” build your own burger menu (complete with “premium toppings” which cost extra), but I think I learned my lesson last week- and decided to stick with Kalbi Burger’s signature creations.
The centerpiece of the burger menu is their Kalbi Burger. It’s the most expensive ($7.95) because it’s a 50/50 blend of chuck and kalbi (Korean short ribs), and while the difference in texture is subtle, the flavor is not. The burger is nicely charred from the grill and you can definitely taste the Korean marinade, which gives it a nice bit of sweetness to go with the smokiness. Sound familiar? Of course it does… Korean marinade + meat + grill = good. But unlike Kogi, which is a flavor punch in the face, the Kalbi Burger tends to lean more American. The Korean flavors took a background seat to the American cheese, lettuce, onion, and tomatoes.
The patty itself is not super thin (ala In N Out) but they’re not as thick as the Counter or Umami Burger either. They live in that no-mans land in between, where cooking it medium well (Kalbi Burger’s default) makes it too dry, but cooking it perfectly medium rare is a tough task. The Kalbi Burger came closest to medium rare, and it clearly benefited.
The rest of the burgers are made with straight up chuck, but aside from the lack of sweetness there isn’t a noticeable difference- especially once you cover that sucker with American cheese and kimchi ala the Seoul Burger ($5.95). The kimchi is sauteed and adds an interesting funk… but it wasn’t as simple tasting as just putting a handful of good kimchi on top of a burger. Sauteing the mixture almost made it feel more like a funky sauteed onion topping- rather than the cool fresh garlic punch I was hoping for. I think I would have preferred to have it added as a cold condiment.
We also tried the Saigon Burger ($5.95), which was essentially just a burger as banh mi. The cucumber, cilantro and pickled carrots and radish mixture were instantly familiar (although they became more like a cole slaw when mixed with the creamy Saigon sauce) and the jalapenos added a nice kick.
All the burgers were well balanced and tasty- but the biggest complaint might be over the bun. I was kind of frightened by the large, and crusty looking bun… but it turned out to be very airy. So once it was pushed down around the burger, it provided the perfect vehicle for the burger and all its toppings. Despite the massive size of the bun, the burger as a whole ended up being surprisingly well balanced. (Although burger purists might still find the bun way too big… then again, I’m not sure why burger purists would be eating at a place called Kalbi Burger.)
Combos come with a french fries ($1.95 ala carte), which they will top with sea salt and vinegar for an extra $1. Garlic for an extra $1.50. I don’t think they were fresh cut, but whatever. Shoestring fries are good. And topping them with salt and vinegar or garlic is clearly and improvement.
Kalbi Burger also does hot dogs… which can be topped with sauteed kimchee. (Of course.) The hot dog is a Jumbo Vienna Beef dog, and pretty tasty. And for $6.45, you can get it with fries and a drink. (Add $1 for the onion rings, which were also pretty good.)
I don’t think Kalbi Burger is ever going to be as popular as Bon Chon or Kyochon. And the quality of the burger itself is not at the level of Umami (in fairness, though, it’s way cheaper.) But for the area, it’s a great new lunchtime option… one that strikes a nice balance in how it allows you to feel like you’re still eating eat an American hamburger, while adding a slight little Asian twist that makes it unique and interesting.
THE + (What somebody who likes this place would say)
- I love the idea of American burgers with an Asian twist
- Kogi is a bit too much for me… I like that the Korean toppings at Kalbi are a bit more subtle.
- Who can afford Umami for lunch every day! This place you get a cheeseburger (with cool toppings), fries, and a drink for under $10.
- I love the char you get from the grill
- The beef is natural angus, hormone and antibiotic free.
- I love shoestring fries (especially when they’re topped with garlic)
THE – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- I like a thick burger, cooked perfectly medium rare. These are too thin, and get dry pretty easily.
- American cheese and sweet Korean marinade? That sounds weird.
- I wish it was less American, and more Korean.
- The bun is waaaaaay to big. Bread to beef ratio is way off.
- Even In N Out has fresh cut fries. These tasted frozen.
Kalbi Burger, 4001 Wilshire Blvd. (on Wilton), 212-738-7898