Langer’s #19. The Focaccia di Recco at Chi Spacca. Mariscos Jalisco’s tacos de camaron. They’re the first things we feed out-of-towners after they’ve grabbed their luggage at LAX, and the last things we cite when shutting down East Coasters who think good food in LA must involve Moon Juice.
In other words, they’ve earned their spots in our LA Food Pantheon. Now it’s time for them to make room for a new member - the dak galbi, a spicy Korean chicken stir fry served at Mapo Galbi.
A meal at Mapo Galbi is a bit different than what you find at other meat-centric spots in Koreatown. The simple space is small and sparsely decorated - though each table has its own grill and vent above, this isn’t going to be a smoky BBQ showdown. The menu is tiny (with only six items total), and essentially decorative; when the first word out of your server’s mouth is “Chicken?,” it’s not really a question. It’s a command. One that you obey.
And then you wait. Marinated chicken, garae-tteok (cylindrical rice cakes), and sweet potatoes are added to a giant, in-table skillet, followed closely by a heaping pile of cabbage and ggaenip, a minty Korean herb. As it all starts to cook down (a process that takes about 15 minutes, but feels like a Gone With The Wind double feature when you’re hungry), servers will walk by with squeeze-bottles filled with spicy red chili paste - encourage them to put as much into the stir fry as possible. When the plate of shredded cheese is dumped on top (an add-on that’s a requirement in our book), you’ll know it’s time for your meal to begin.
For a dish as straightforward as Mapo’s dak galbi - and you know that because you just watched every ingredient go into it - the intensity of flavor is mind-boggling. The savory chicken cutting through the spicy chili paste, the fragrant ggaenip balancing out the thick layer of melted cheese - it’s a perfect plate of food and one that, despite the immense complexity of flavors and textures, feels like home cooking.
But the meal’s not over just yet. Once you’re about halfway through the dak galbi, someone from the staff will push the remaining stir fry to the side and slap down the second course you never knew you needed: a huge helping of nori-topped crispy rice slowly simmering in all the flavors left over from the galbi. In all the times we’ve been to Mapo, we’ve yet to finish this - it’s basically waiting to be boxed up and taken home.
But long after the leftovers have been eaten, and the smell of the galbi has faded from your clothes, you’ll still find yourself thinking about a meal here. And then you’ll find yourself making plans to return, probably with those East Coast friends. You can tell them to leave their Moon Juice in the car.
This is one of the single best dishes in Los Angeles, and the reason you and everyone else decided to have dinner at Mapo Galbi tonight. It’s essentially a spicy chicken stir fry, built right in front of you at an in-table skillet. Mixed in with the chicken are rice cakes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, a minty Korean herb called ggaenip, and as much red chili paste as you can handle. They’ll also ask if you want to add shredded cheese on top and you should take them up on it. The result is a rich, spicy, sweet, and savory dish that will make you wonder why you ever bother eating anything else. Just don’t fill up too fast - there’s a whole second part to the meal where they push the remaining stir fry off to the side and cook nori fried rice on the skillet until it’s crispy and full of flavors from the stir fry. There’s no way you’re going to eat all of it, but at least you’ll have lunch for tomorrow.