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.
Bibimbap is everywhere in Korea and comes in many forms there. Bibimbap is served cold in the summer, and hot in the winter (in a sizzling stone bowl so the rice cooks to a crisp as you eat). Koreans eat bibimbap made with raw seafood and bibimbap made with raw beef.
It is said to be a New Year’s day tradition in Korea, the result of a superstition that forbids eating food in the New Year that was prepared in the old year. Bibimbap, the story goes, is made from all the various leftover ingredients, a way to clean the cupboards with one meal. The tradition aside, Koreans eat bibimbap all days of the year.
The spiritual home of bibimbap is the city of Jeonju in central Korea, a city of fertile plains and verdant hills, thought of as the breadbasket of the country. Whether bibimbap came from Jeonju isn’t clear, but it is clear the city claims it as its own. There is even a bibimbap museum in Jeonju.
Jeonju is also where the owners of B Bop are from. Despite the name, there is nothing “fusion” about B Bop; it is all Korean. And there is no “bar” anymore, although there used to be. When the restaurant opened late last year, customers could choose their own bibimbap toppings from a self-serve case in the back of the restaurant. The gimmick didn’t last long, one of the servers said, because their customers preferred to be served. (This was unsurprising to the Korean friends I spoke to; the buffet just isn’t a Korean thing, they said.)
B Bop has a relatively small menu of about 20 items, generally a good sign. A place that serves a few things will probably make them very, very well. There are Korean dumplings, sausages, a seafood pancake, spicy noodles, and a handful of stews and soups that you won’t know about unless you read Hangul, the Korean alphabet. They are worth asking about, particularly the small hen poached in a clay pot. Most dishes are $10 or less.
Besides its bibimbap, the pride and joy of B Bop is its bean-sprout soup. Jeonju is known for growing bean sprouts, and bean-sprout soup ($5.99) is a Jeonju specialty. B Bop serves three kinds of bibimbap, the standard cold, Jeonju-style bibimbap ($8.99) which always includes bean sprouts, dolsot bibimbap ($10.99) served in the sizzling bowl, and barley bibimbap ($12.99) which comes with a small bowl of bean-paste stew, sometimes referred to as dead-body soup because of the pungent aroma of the fermented beans. (The paste is house-made, and has a distinct aroma I’ve not smelled in any other Korean restaurant.)
The benefit of barley is that the grains are loose, not clumped together like rice, and mix easily with the vegetables. The bibimbap comes with 10 different kinds of vegetables, carrots, spinach, mushrooms, radishes, ferns, squash and more.
B Bop does not serve the customary assortment of small appetizers called banchan, but with all the ingredients in the bibimbap, you don’t really need banchan. Instead, your meal comes with two huge bowls of kimchi, that elixir of cabbage and garlic and hot peppers.
At last report, kimchi was also making headway with the popular crowd, finding its way onto menus outside of the Kimchi Corridor, often watered down, sometimes contrived as a condiment. If kimchi breaks through someday, perhaps it will be on the coattails of bibimbop.
If you go: B Bop Fusion Rice Bar, 18623 Highway 99, Suite 140, Lynnwood, 425-582-7015. Open Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Sunday.