A replenishing visit to Bonjuk in LA's K-Town
With hundreds of restaurants crammed within three square miles, LA’s Koreatown can be a thrilling place to eat, offering virtually everything in the pantheon of Korean cuisine… provided you know where to look. Different restaurants specialize in different dishes, but relatively few in K-Town make a point to brag about their juk. A soupy rice porridge similar to Chinese congee, juk is made in its most basic form by slowly simmering and stirring white rice and water. Historically speaking, it’s peasant food. “Juk was invented out of necessity, in order to extend every serving of rice,” says Neil Kwon, a Korean-American restaurateur whose family owns several restaurants in K-Town. Today, most juks are dressed up with ingredients to give it more flavor, but even so, it’s not exactly the kind of meal you’d plan a big night around. “People eat juk in Korea when they’re feeling sick or having digestive issues. It’s seen as a recovery food,” Kwon says. “It’s basically the Korean equivalent of chicken soup.”
It’s worth noting here that juk isn’t explicitly a breakfast food in Korea, where a typical breakfast might be rice and a mild, brothy soup with banchan on the side. But Kwon did mention that juk is a good morning-after meal, when the body needs something soothing after a night of excess. That was all I needed to hear to seek out one of the few restaurants in K-Town that specializes in the stuff. It’s also convenient that savory porridge, made with everything from oatmeal to sorghum, is so hot right now; I wanted to learn more about the Korean dish that predated the trend.
This is how I came to find myself at Bonjuk, a Korean chain that describes itself as an “unprecedented porridge specialty restaurant that [offers] a healthy alternative for customers who [seek] easily digestible but nutritious take-out food,” and claims to have “pioneered a new market for what used to be a strictly home-made dish.” Bonjuk has expanded to over 1000 stores in Korea since its launch in 2002, and has three locations in the US—two in Southern California; one in Flushing in New York. (The chain did not respond to requests for comment.)
The LA location is peaceful and tucked into the bottom floor of an unassuming multi-use complex in K-Town. The aesthetic is resolutely unfashionable: wide, tall-backed chairs with squishy cushions and a minimalist dark wood-and-eggshell color scheme. The staff all seem to speak in the same soothing dulcet tones. When I walked in with a friend, it lowered the median customer age of the place by about 30 years.
Bonjuk serves an extensive menu of sweet and savory juks, and their brand identity revolves around health and sincerity: “Bonjuk selects fresh and abundant nutritious ingredients and cook each dish with a true heart as a mother cooks for their family,” a sign on the wall assured me. The multi-page menu offers juk with abalone, pumpkin (squash), pine nut, mung bean, black sesame (see top photo), shrimp, octopus-kimchi, and a dozen more, with descriptions of the supposed health benefits of each.
We opted for abalone, one of the most popular and distinguished juks—according to the menu, abalone helps support liver function and “recovery from weariness and illness,” and is “traditionally reserved for the Royal household.” (Abalone has long been valued in Asian cultures for its nutritional benefits, which are said to improve everything from eyesight to the central nervous system.) To balance the salty shellfish, we also got a sweet pumpkin juk, “good for women’s beauty and aging care.” Sold on all counts.
The bowls that arrived were enormous; large enough to destroy a hangover three times over. Both were served with little bowls of white and red kimchi, braised beef and chile paste, which provides a pleasant change of pace from the purposefully bland porridge. Not that it was flavorless: The abalone slices were rich and briny, mixed with crunchy bits of sesame seeds, and the pumpkin in the other bowl had been pureed with the rice to create a creamy, sweet version with a vibrant golden hue. Both had the kind of soothing, uplifting effect of an electric blanket, alleviating my headache and the general gastrointestinal unpleasantness caused by a big night out prior.
We ate slowly and quietly, matching the mood of the restaurant. Will abalone porridge be the next big thing? I can’t say for sure. (OK, I can say with some confidence, probably not.) But I do know where you’ll find me for breakfast the next time I’m in K-Town.