3301 S. Claiborne Ave., New Orleans
THREE STARS (out of four)
Korean barbecue is a major phenomenon in some cities, though here we’ve had scant opportunities to try it. Little Korea, however, is a new outpost for this hands-on style of eating. The restaurant looks like a fast food joint from the outside (it used to be a Taco Bell) but inside it is a much nicer, family-run place.
The restaurant past of Little Korea’s past can’t be ignored. Despite new signs high above and in the windows, the building still looks like an old Taco Bell and I’m sure many people who have driven past it still think the place serves burritos and Mexi Melts. So pushing open the door reveals a surprise. The interior has been reworked with cherry blossom murals, bar-style high tables and stylish light fixtures into a comfortable, still very casual café setting.
This is a family-run restaurant with a laidback style. Newcomers to Korean cuisine will have lots of questions about this menu, and the staff can provide the answers, though sometimes you need to tease out the intel. I recommend that first-timers look over the menu and then look around the room at the other tables to see how some of the dishes are served. You can generally get a quick meal here, especially at lunch, or you can build a longer, more lingering exploration through courses.
Meals start with portions of kimchi and other pickled salads, and this provides a sort of appetizer round on the house. These vary from day to day but are generally very good, often spicy, little servings of pickled, fermented and otherwise strongly flavored vegetables. Dumplings, eggrolls and spring rolls are straightforward enough, and the potato croquettes have a panko crust and a delicious creamy sauce. The “seafood pancake” is a little more unusual. Picture a flattened omelet strung with long green onion tops and embedded with bits of shrimp and squid.
The Korean barbecue is the centerpiece of this menu. Order it, and the waitress brings a portable gas stove and pan to your table and cooks it up right there. Pluck the marinated, garlicky chicken, beef or ribs from the sizzling pan and wrap up the meat with lettuce, rice and sauce. Another traditional Korean dish served here is called dolsot bibimbap. This is like fried rice, only it fries before your eyes at the table. It's served in a stone bowl heated to such a degree that it continues cooking the mixture of rice and egg and beef as it is served, making a crunchy, aromatic finished product by the time it's cool enough to eat. There are also large, meal-sized soups and a scattering of Vietnamese dishes (like pho and spring rolls) that add more diversity to the menu but aren’t really the specialties of the house.
Beyond soft drinks, the bar is limited to beer and a clear, strong Korean liquor called soju
Little Korea is a good bargain, with most main dishes in the $10 to $15 range. Lunch and dinner combo specials, with soup, rice and kimchi sides, are between $8 and $13.
Authentic Korean food has been such a rare commodity around New Orleans that many people may be unsure what to expect when they finally encounter it. And when the place where they find it happens to have a striking resemblance to a Taco Bell franchise, well, it’s all the more puzzling. But despite an unorthodox location Little Korea provides a convincing, welcoming and easy-going introduction to the flavors of this delicious cuisine, and for the outgoing eater it’s well worth a visit.