by Ian McNulty
New Orleans has scant options for Korean food, so the arrival of the new Little Korea (3301 S. Claiborne Ave., 821-5006) is bound to draw some interest, even if this restaurant’s location is a bit unexpected and its menu of traditional Korean dishes has an unusual sideline in Vietnamese food.
The restaurant was opened recently by the Park family, who hail from Korea and relocated to New Orleans just this year. They had earlier run a Korean restaurant in Hawaii, says manager Sunnie Park.
Little Korea’s building was originally a Taco Bell franchise, and previously it had been lightly renovated into Orleans Seafood, which served boiled and fried seafood and Chinese food but still looked almost exactly like a Taco Bell. While the Park family has given the place a more thorough makeover, its fast food roots are still evident. The drive-through window remains, for example, though Little Korea doesn’t use it.
Inside, the place has been redone with high tables, a few booths and wall murals that manage to obscure the old Taco Bell menu boards mounted by the drop ceiling. Korean pop music plays through the sound system and there’s table service, which is handled by staff who are obviously eager to explain their dishes to customers they know might not be too familiar with Korean cuisine.
One mainstay is dol sot bibimbap, a hearty rice dish with squiggles of beef, vegetables and egg served in a searing-hot stone pot that binds the rice together and fries the grains at the bottom into a crunchy, toasty crust. The menu has a wide range of entrée-sized soups, panko-battered fried meat and seafood dishes, stir-fries and a few vegetarian options. If you have at least two people at your table, you can get an order of Korean barbecue (with short ribs, brisket or pork belly) prepared at the table on a portable grill. They’ll also cook this for you in the kitchen if you prefer, but the tabletop preparation for this style of Korean food usually makes a fun option. Most dishes at Little Korea are priced between $11 and $15.
Nearly every Korean entrée here comes with a selection of a few different banchan, a wide-ranging array of fermented or pickled side dishes of which the spicy, cabbage-based kimchi is the best known. Others are mellower, like pickled slivers of eggplant or miniature piles of rice noodles with bits of beef and pickled carrot. You pick at these throughout the meal, mixing them with a little sticky rice served on the side, or use them as condiments on certain dishes.
Traditionally, Korean cooking shares some of the fundamentals of the cuisine from neighboring Japan and northern China and it relies on familiar primary seasonings like red pepper, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, sesame and vinegar. The connection to Vietnamese cooking is a little more of a stretch, but Park explains that Little Korea also serves pho, spring rolls and rice noodle salads to give local customers a few more options. These also cost a bit less than the Korean dishes, with most about $7.
Little Korea serves lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. It serves beer and soft drinks (no wine or liquor) and offers take-out and catering.
3301 S. Claiborne Ave., 821-5006