Choosing restaurants that have the best banchan is almost as difficult as deciding whose mom makes the best kimchi. It all depends on personal preferences, tastes and biases.
The little side dishes that come out at every Korean restaurant are called mit banchan (which loosely translates to "bottom" or "base" banchan), and make the foundation for every meal. Practically anything served with rice is called banchan, except the soup. Kimchi is banchan. That meat you're cooking on your table is technically banchan. Even the ubiquitous serving of potato salad is banchan.
In Korea, the banchan that make their way to the table are based on what's in season. There's always some kind of kimchi, some kind of namul (sauteed vegetable) and a variety of other pickled or seasoned things. In Los Angeles, the type and flavor of banchan will vary depending on what region of Korea the owner is from, the culinary whims of the chef — and what's available that day.
The practice of serving large numbers of banchan started as a symbol of wealth during Korea's imperial history. By the way, it's generally considered bad luck in Korean culture to serve banchan in even numbers, except for the royal table when at least 12 banchan were served.
Soban — Known among Koreans for their ganjang gaejang (soy-seasoned raw blue crab) and the galbi jjim (soy-stewed beef ribs), Soban sits in an unlikely corner of Olympic. Thirteen square dishes grace the dining table at Soban, ranging from steamed egg, a namul dish made from parsley and a peppery celery. The owner is from Jeolla-do, the province of Korea known for their generous number of side dishes and the subtle flavors of their food. 4001 W. Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, (323) 936-9106, sobanusa.com.
Western Doma Gooksu — Like most hidden gems in Koreatown, this location is tucked away in a strip mall between Beverly and Melrose. A small menu features the usual top Korean culinary hits, including the kalgooksu, the handcut Korean "knife" noodles referred to in the name ("doma" means cutting board, "gooksu" means noodles). The carefully made banchan keep bringing back the regulars. The potato salad is no surprise, but the seasoned peanuts and dried roots are unusual guest stars on the table. Service will be slow because the owner does the cooking, waitressing and serving. But if you were eating at your favorite great aunt's house, you wouldn't rush her either. So, imagine your Korean grandma is bringing out the meal, and just enjoy your complimentary ddeokbokgi (spicy rice sticks) while you wait. 429 N. Western Ave., Suite 10, Los Angeles, (323) 871-1955.
Mapo Kkak Doo Gee — K-Town regulars come in for the lunch specials on weekdays, since they're such bargains. Although they're only listed in Korean on the exterior, the small selection includes kalgooksu and bibimbap (a mixed rice bowl). Everything on the menu is served with a nice array of banchan. Of course, you'll get their namesake kkakdoogi (the hunky cubes of radish kimchi). The selection may also include soy-stewed potatoes, seasoned seaweed, steamed cabbage leaves with a side of seasoned dwenjang (fermented soybean sauce) and, of course, their version of the potato salad. 3611 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 736-6668.
Jun Won — Stepping through the back door of Jun Won feels just like entering a shikdang (restaurant) in a back alley somewhere in Chungcheong-do, where the owner's mom was from. Inside also feels like the old country, as grandmas and grandpas converse quietly over spicy stewed seafood or a bubbling stone pot of dwenjang jjigae (fermented soybean stew). The seven bowls of banchan may seem small, but they'll keep filling your bowl as long as you ask. Just be sure to polish off your whole grain rice, since it's considered rude to leave bap (rice) in your bowl. They have a complimentary parking behind the joint, right off of Catalina. 3100 W 8th St., Suite 101, Los Angeles, (213) 383-8855.
U2 — In the sea of all-you-can-eat BBQ joints that dot the Koreatown landscape, U2 stands out for its big and varied banchan "salad" bar. The variety of self-serve options range from fried sweet potatoes to California rolls. The giant vat of dwenjang (fermented soybean paste) is only dwarfed by the larger container of kimchi. The selections will vary by day, but the best part is not having to wait for your server to come back to get your fill of kongnamul (soy bean sprouts) or shigeumchi (spinach). 3377 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 732-9293, u2ayce.com.
Genwa — If there were a contest for the greatest number of banchan served, Genwa would win hands down. So many round dishes arrived at the table, that we didn't even fault the server for getting a couple of descriptions wrong. When serving 12 side dishes is considered the mark of a royal table, twenty-three may seem excessive. But they're small. The selections may include egg-battered Korean ham, a chilled glass noodle with krab, pickled perilla leaves, tiny anchovies, mook (a Korean gelatin with seasoned soy sauce), and a variety of kimchi. If you ask for seconds, be sure to remember which ones you wanted. Your server won't remember either. Two locations. 5115 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 549-0760; and 170 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 854-0046, genwakoreanbbq.com.