Seattle’s Koreatown, although no such designation officially exists, is a hamlet with irregular borders and a few different nodes, making it necessary to designate the designation further. For example: Koreatown North.
This would be the Koreatown of Shoreline and Lynnwood, as opposed to the Koreatown South of Federal Way and/or Tacoma, or the Koreatown East of Bellevue.
Koreatown North is perhaps the most cohesive of the city’s Koreatowns. It roughly describes a 5-10-mile stretch of Highway 99, depending on where you draw those elusive borders. To me, this upward reaching stretch of Highway 99 is the beautiful, fragrant, Kimchi Corridor, a name bestowed with love, although as I think on it, I could also imagine it spoken with derision in a different context.
The Kimchi Corridor takes time to discover, which is its beauty. Just north of 188th Street SW is a small office building set back far from the street, partially hidden by a pocket wetland planted, literally, in the middle of the building’s parking lot.
Not quite fully occupied, the office building has a pair of medical clinics, a tae kwon do studio, and a small restaurant that sticks out a bit even in this neck of the woods, B Bop Fusion Rice Bar (also called Cheon Ju B Bap in some listings).
The star at B Bop is, as the name implies, bibimbap (more on B Bop’s special brand of bibimbap later), perhaps the most popular dish in and outside of Korea. Korean food is probably the least popular of Asian cuisines in the U.S. Some people love it; a lot don’t; many just don’t know much about it. But if they do, it’s pretty likely that the dish they know and like is bibimbap. What’s not to love, after all?
It’s a chef’s salad of sorts: marinated vegetables, a little bit of meat, an egg, all artfully arranged atop of a small bed of rice with dressing on the side, in this case a paste made of hot peppers and fermented soybeans.
From most types of ethnic food, a certain breakout dish will eventually evolve, to wit, the burrito, pizza, pad thai, the California roll, General Tso’s chicken, the gyro — that one food that, with a few modifications, works on many levels (convenience, adaptability, affordability, flavor). Whether bibimbap has become such a dish is still debatable, but evidence is mounting.
Just about every teriyaki stand in the city puts bibimbap on the menu somewhere, owing to the fact that many of these shops are run by Korean immigrants. Recently, a place called Oma Bap opened in downtown Bellevue (NE 2nd Street and Bellevue Way NE) next to a Fatburger. The format is pure American: fast food, with a walk-up counter and a colorful menu board featuring bibimbap and Korean-style maki rolls.
If the concept of fast-food, American bibimbap takes off, Oma Bap will have been one of the early adopters. Of all the foods to come from Korea, bibimbap has the best chance at breaking into the mainstream. Different but unintimidating, it appeals to the health-conscious with all of its hearty vegetables and dearth of fat. It is simple to construct, but complicated to prepare, requiring a lot of prep, which makes it something you almost have to go out to eat. It is inexpensive, usually less than $10. Most of all, it is versatile. Just as you can top a pizza or fill a burrito with different ingredients, you can dress bibimbap with just about anything.
I’ve eaten bibimbap on an airplane (Korean Airlines), in Vienna, Austria (the placed served both Chinese and Korean food), and in Bozeman, Montana (believe it or not), which is how I know that even when bibimbap is bad, it’s still good. It is one of those perfect foods, containing a little bit of everything in a balance rarely seen in a single dish. Like a cheeseburger, you have starch, protein and vegetable, but in healthier proportions, light on the fauna, heavy on the flora.
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