Seoul, South Korea, is one of the best eating cities in the world: Women hawk spicy rice cakes from teeming market stalls, tiny parlors put out tasty fried dumplings at breath-taking speed, and restaurants are often laser-focused on serving a perfect version of just one or two dishes, be that table-cooked trotters or brothy bowls of cold buckwheat noodles. You can order fried chicken and a round of cold beer delivered to your geographical location (even if it's, say, outdoors along the Han River), and small shops everywhere lure you in for pastries or shaved ice sweetened with red beans and condensed milk. The food is rich and strongly flavored — good for steeling against the country's cold winters — and almost all of it is worthy of attention and obsession. Luckily, metro Denver boasts a sizable selection of solid Korean restaurants that turn out good barbecue, plus noodles, stews, seafood and market treats like tteokbokki (those cylindrical rice cakes). Here's our list of the ten best Korean restaurants in the metro area — most of them in Aurora — listed in alphabetical order.
460 South Broadway, 720-542-3164
827 Colorado Boulevard, 720-639-9986
7570 Sheridan Boulevard, Westminster, 720-540-0700
Dae Gee started as a Westminster shop touting all-you-can eat Korean barbecue, and its following was so strong, owner Joseph Kim has since expanded out into multiple Mile High locations. Dae Gee's draw goes beyond the carnivorous feast: modern interiors draw diverse crowds, kids' pricing is especially family-friendly, vegetarian items are plentiful and spelled out, and clear instructions plus grilling assistance from staffers are a boon for diners who are unsure how to approach cooking their own bulgogi. The menu here stays firmly within the types of Korean items with which Americans are most familiar — barbecue, bibimbap, tofu stew — but it does those dishes well. Start your meal with a veggie pancake, and then head straight for the ’cue, which also provides you unlimited rice and banchan (here just called sides). Our favorite is the galbi short ribs.
2779 South Parker Road, Aurora
Look around Funny Plus, the haphazardly arranged strip-mall restaurant whose facade bears the name "Hof," and you'll notice just about everyone has ordered the Korean fried chicken. You should do the same, opting for either the original crisp-cased collection of wings and drums, or the type bathed in sticky sweet-hot sauce (and if you can't decide, there's a half-and-half option). You could, quite frankly, just eat that, paired with several bottles of beer and maybe a little kimchi. But better to side it with some cheesy corn — a common barbecue offering in Korea, but rarer here on the Front Range — and, if you've got a large group, deokbokgi, or rice cakes in spicy gochuchang. If you feel you must cook, request a barbecue table; Funny Plus does decent brisket and galbi alongside tripe and jowls.
Mr. Kim Korean BBQ
12201 East Mississippi Avenue no. 113, Aurora
The cavernous dining room that's home to Mr. Kim Korean BBQ is cluttered with hoods and tabletop grills, belying the sizable barbecue menu that awaits. The most economical way to eat here is to head straight for the all-you-can eat section, a three-tiered dinner pricing scheme that nets you as much as you can grill over the course of two hours (plus unlimited banchan and a scallion pancake). The least expensive version of this feast buys you three variations on bulgogi plus pork belly and thin strips of beef; spring for the top-tier combo and you'll get access to all of that plus tongue, pork skin, white fish and cheek. If you go the à la carte route, note that you'll need to order at least a couple of platters of meat to do your own grilling — one round of pork bulgogi or the like, and the kitchen will cook it for you so you don't dirty your grill. And not that you'll be hungry after this indulgent spread, but for dessert, you could always pop over to the Pacific Ocean Marketplace, a massive Asian grocery store that houses a small Korean bake shop at the front.
Olleh Korean Restaurant
2648 South Parker Road, Aurora
Don't be put off by the look of this place: Olleh sits in a dilapidated Parker Road strip mall, and its interior has the ambience of a neglected suburban office breakroom. Like many restaurants in Korea, this place focuses on just a few specialties: noodles, kim-bap (basically, Korean sushi rolls), ddukbokki (rice cakes in sweet-spicy gochuchang) and ox head soup. Glance at other diners, and you'll see that everyone (other than kids) is eating the soup, milky and deeply satiating from the long-stewed bones and floating with strips of beef. Your server will bring it with a heaping bowl of green onion, plus chopped chiles and pepper paste. The more green onions the better, we say — the pungent edge adds depth to the savory broth. The kids, by the way, tuck into the ddukbokki; rice cakes mixed with thin triangles of fish cake to create a stew best described as Korean comfort food. And don't be afraid to ask for more kimchi; the version here is the best we sampled.
2080 South Havana Street, Aurora
Seoul BBQ is a well-known Havana Street labyrinth of private rooms and a winding dining room, all filled with grill-inlaid tables beneath boxy exhaust hoods. This restaurant has its ’cue down to a science, and it churns out standards like bulgogi beef and galbi short ribs alongside more specialized cuts like pork jowl, beef tongue and pork collar with octopus. Check out the combinations if you'd like to sample a variety; they include soju and beer in their price tags. Good as the meat is, you shouldn't overlook the rest of the menu, which spans a number of Korean specialties, from stews to snails to bibimbap. We like the bibim naengmyeon, in which cold noodles are pooled with savory, chile-imbued broth. The version here uses sweet-potato noodles (simultaneously stickier and more slippery than the more common buckwheat), is nicely balanced by a hit of tartness, and is generously topped with slices of cucumber, pear and beef — plus half a hard-boiled egg. As a bonus, Seoul recently added a catering shop next door, from which you can carry out Korean pastries and vats of the excellent banchan you were served as sides.
Keep reading for more of the best Korean restaurants in town...
Shin Myung Gwan
2680 South Havana Street Unit B, Aurora
Shin Myung Gwan recently replaced Sae Jong Kwan, a mainstay of Korean barbecue in Aurora for more than a decade; good as the old restaurant was, the new resident is better. Shin Myung Gwan still offers barbecue: Tabletop grills cook up short ribs, bulgogi, pork neck and cow's tongue. Combo sets let you sample a variety of those offerings, and, as a bonus, they come with a stone bowl of spicy kimchi stew, a veggie pancake and a free bottle of beer. There's plenty of other food to explore here, too, and you should spend some time perusing the hot pots, which dot most tables; the stews are filled with everything from spicy chicken to tripe, from black goat to seafood. We're fans of the octopus and bulgogi hot pot, built on a light, clear and deeply savory broth seasoned with green onions. Don't miss, either, the peppery and slightly sweet stir-fried rice cake, which you might also know as tteokbokki. The version here, supplemented by thin slices of fish cake, is spicier than other renditions in the neighborhood, and it comes floating with a brick of ramen noodles, which melts into the broth as it bubbles. The menu says this dish is for two people, and it doesn't lie — though the same could be said for just about any dish on the restaurant's menu. Over-ordering is incredibly easy here.
3005 South Peoria Street, Aurora
Silla has held court in an Aurora strip mall for more than two decades, and it still commands a legion of fans who pack the place to grill their own meats (including duck, a relatively unusual offering in Denver), sip spicy stews and dip into what might be the best version of bibim naengmyeon in this city. The noodles here are a bit spicier than counterparts in other restaurants, and come topped with beef slices and radish; variations include a cold noodle married with raw fish. The best time to head to Silla is at lunch, when you can tuck into that naengmyeon plus take down a little galbi short rib for less than $15. At dinner, head for the combination menus, which buy you, in addition to barbecue, variations on custardy soon tofu stew and a bottle of soju. Any time of day, remember to use your call button to summon your server, a ritual that seems more observed here than at other restaurants in the area, where more American-style hospitality has taken root.
12101 East Iliff Avenue, Aurora
Soban is an offshoot of an acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant, noted for its seafood and praised by critic Jonathan Gold for its raw crab. Raw crab was on the Aurora menu when the restaurant opened last year, but it seems to have rolled off sometime in the interim, perhaps because it was priced at $35. Instead, peruse the seafood stew section, where you'll spy spicy codfish, monkfish, fish egg and pollack. Whatever you choose will come bubbling in a clay pot; spoon it over rice for the best effect. Speaking of rice, you'll inevitably be asked whether you want white rice or brown, and in this case, you should go with the latter: brown here is japkok, a traditional mix of different rices and beans. Supplement with a little grilled cuttlefish or mackerel. By the way, seafood-averse eaters shouldn't skip this place: The kitchen turns out solid barbecue standards alongside the fish.
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2353 South Havana Street, Aurora
Don’t let the fact that Tofu House is a franchise put you off: This string of restaurants traces its origins to central Seoul, where the existence of multiple locations of a restaurant is an indicator of excellence. True to its name, the restaurant specializes in tofu, a custardy version of which is tucked into a dozen or so stews, mixing with oyster and clam plus mushrooms, kimchi, pork or Spam. The classic version blends the bean curd with shellfish in a spicy broth (add an egg if you’d like), and the power move here is to order it as part of a combination so that you can also sample some of Tofu House’s barbecued bulgogi, spicy pork or squid. Combination meals are built for a group, and they include a small collection of banchan — the kimchi here is exceptional — plus a small fried fish, which you can order bone-in or bone-out. Spoon your soup over japgokbap (Korean multigrain rice), and pair your meal to a bottle of makgeolli, a semi-sweet, tart fizzy rice wine that pairs nicely with spicy food. When you inevitably return to Tofu House, consider also exploring the heady oxtail soup or the cauldrons filled with rice, meat, kimchi and seaweed. They may not get marquee billing, but they’re superb offerings.
2040 South Havana Street, Aurora
Yong Gung specializes in Korean-style Chinese food, the pinnacle of which is a noodle dish called jajangmyeon. Rooted in a Chinese mainstay called zhajiangmian, which tops wheat noodles with a deeply savory soybean paste stewed with ground pork and garnishes that with slivers of fresh cucumber, jajangmyeon's sauce is thicker and inkier, and stronger in flavor. You'll spot at least one bowl of this dish on each table; in fact, it's likely that you'll spy tables at which each member of the dining party ordered his or her own bowl. All that is to say: Don't skip it. The sauce here is underpinned with onion, which gives it a pungent base note to balance out more fermented flavors. You'll be presented with scissors alongside your bowl, making it easier to cut these noodles if you're sharing. In addition to a sizable list of other dishes, Yong Gung also makes excellent Korean fried chicken wings, lacquering the poultry with a sticky sweet-spicy glaze.
Note: The little cylindrical rice cakes and the spicy stew they appear in go by the name tteokbokki, ddukbokki or deokbokgi, all spelling variations of the same dish. We used the spelling as it appears on each menu to help you find the right dish.