Comfort food is an inherently personal thing. Whether your list includes buttery mashed potatoes, bright-orange mac ’n’ cheese, or steaming rice porridge with thousand-year-old egg, it’s bound to be full to the brim with foodstuffs that remind you of the best parts of your childhood. Ironically, one of my comfort foods didn’t even cross my taste buds until I was in my late 20s during my first trip to Korea.
A staple in Korean households, bibimbap literally means “mixed rice.” While this filling, all-in-one meal can include practically anything (the dish is basically a way to use leftover banchan, or the side dishes integral to every Korean meal), purists expect their bowl of rice to be topped with at least three kinds of vegetables (usually sesame-oil-marinated bean sprouts, some kind of spinach-like green, and shredded carrots – all individually prepared and arranged separately); one kind of meat (typically beef); and a raw or sunny-side-up egg. These ingredients are then mixed together and seasoned to taste with generous dollops of gochujang (fermented red chili paste).
Many higher-end restaurants treat bibimbap as an art form and dedicate hours to the preparation of the vegetables and gochujang alone. The veggies are often seasonal and specially chosen to achieve a perfect balance of flavors, textures, and colors. Bay Area chefs tend to get creative with the ingredients and frequently provide vegetarians and vegans with meticulously formulated options at otherwise meat-centric Korean restaurants. House-made gochujang can vary dramatically with respect to heat factor, sweetness, tang, and pungency from restaurant to restaurant. Taste it before you douse your bowl.
Even better than regular bibimbap is having it in a dolsot, a stone cauldron that’s coated with sesame oil, filled with rice, placed in the oven or on the stove until it’s scalding, and then carefully dressed. Wait a few minutes before mixing everything together, and you’ll get a layer of crispy rice that adds a delightful crunch.
The following are 12 of my favorite bowls in the East Bay, and they’re all different. You may have your own favorite bowls – please let us all know in the comments section below. If you’re curious about what banchan were served, check out more photos on my blog. (Disclaimer: I’m not Korean, but I do have at least three jars of kimchi in my refrigerator at any given time and know my way around a banchan spread.)
1479 Solano Avenue, Albany
Bulgogi Dolsot ($14): The savory bulgogi (marinated beef) infuses the rest of the carefully assembled elements (among them quinoa, cucumber, and diced almonds) with its sublime beefiness.
Mung Bean Pancake Dolsot with Mixed-Grain Rice ($14): The crispy vegan pancake and mixed-grain rice contribute wonderful textures to this comforting bowl filled with quinoa, pea shoots, fiddlehead ferns, bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms, diced almonds, pickled daikon, and more.
SPOON KOREAN BISTRO
933 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley
Seafood Dolsot ($15): Unlike traditional seafood (haemul) bibimbap, which comes swimming in spicy sauce, this one offers perfectly cooked and seasoned squid, scallops, bay shrimp, and mussels along with veggies such as kale, red cabbage, and fiddlehead fern. The egg yolk enhances the natural sweetness of the ingredients.
Organic Vegetarian with Mixed-Grain Rice ($12): Showcasing raw fruits, veggies, and herbs from neighboring Berkeley Bowl West’s organic-produce section, this skillfully assembled bowl is unlike any bibimbap or salad I’ve ever had before. In fact, it tastes like neither! My recent repast included strawberries, blueberries, cherry tomatoes, apple, purple broccoli, Bull’s Blood beet greens, and bell peppers, all atop a bed of sticky, hearty mixed-grain rice. Who knew gochujang could be so fabulous with fruit?
2975 College Avenue, Berkeley
Bulgogi Dolsot with Mixed-Grain Rice ($14.45): The grilled bulgogi imbues the rice and vegetables (spicy pickled daikon, eggplant, and zucchini) with a pleasing smoky beefiness. The sweet pumpkin porridge that comes with this dish is out of this world; though it’s served at the beginning of the meal, I save it for dessert and sometimes buy an extra container “for later.”
Mixed Mushroom Dolsot with Brown Rice ($11.45): I love hearty, meaty mushrooms, and this bowl delivers a nice mix along with veggies such as spicy pickled daikon, bean sprouts, eggplant, and zucchini. Try it with the sweet-and-sour sesame sauce instead of gochujang. The vegetarian dolsot also comes with a serving of that amazing pumpkin porridge.
3915 Broadway Avenue, Oakland
Bulgogi Dolsot($13.99): A grand assortment of expertly seasoned vegetables, including toothsome shiitake mushrooms, complement the sweet-as-candy bulgogi.
San Che ($11.99): San che means “mountain vegetables.” This fresh, well-seasoned vegan delight is composed of at least a dozen delicately prepared, flavorful vegetables, such as fiddlehead ferns and pea shoots; rice comes on the side.
PYEONG CHANG TOFU HOUSE
4701 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland
Beef Dolsot ($13.99): Because everything ordered here comes with a bubbling bowl of spicy, salty, pungent soft tofu soup, the beef and vegetables are mildly seasoned so as not to overwhelm sensitive palates. Bibimbap purists might be aghast, but I add several spoonfuls of the soup to my bibimbap. Of course, this can compromise the crunch of the rice, but sometimes that’s OK.
JONG GA HOUSE
372 Grand Avenue, Oakland
Bulgogi Dolsot ($12.99): This Technicolor bowl is a visual treat, with fresh carrots, red cabbage, bell peppers, dried seaweed, and zucchini offsetting the sweet beef and sunny-side-up egg. Perhaps to complement the plentiful and flavorful banchan, it’s mildly seasoned, so you can go to town with the gochujang.
2433 Durant Avenue, Suite F, Berkeley
Beef Dolsot ($6.99 on Wednesdays; $8.35 on other days): You can’t expect much quality around UC Berkeley, but this is perhaps the cheapest decent dolsot bibimbap you’ll find in the East Bay. It’s simple and well seasoned, though some might complain about the ground-beef-to-veggie ratio as well as the store-bought gochujang (I don’t).
Tofu Dolsot ($6.99 on Wednesdays; $8.35 on other days): When I’m in the mood for a basic vegan dolsot bibimbap (plain tofu, bean sprouts, and zucchini fragrant with sesame oil, crunchy raw carrots, and red cabbage) but don’t want to spend more than $10, this bowl totally hits the spot.