The Best Fresh Kimchi Shops In Los Angeles
Every autumn, women in Korea spend days harvesting and processing cabbage in a massive communal experience known as kimjang. It's a tradition so integral to Korean society that UNESCO recognized it as a crucial element of humanity's "intangible heritage." These women gather at each other's houses to clean cabbage leaves, season them with garlic and chilies, and pack the stuff into large earthenware pots called onggi, which they bury in the cold ground. The idea is to produce enough kimchi to last you through the winter. For centuries, this was how Koreans made kimchi. Then came modernization.
These days, if you go to a Korean market or grocery store -- and we know you want to -- you'll find dozens of brands of kimchi. Much of it is still made the artisanal way but in larger batches. There's nothing wrong with Big Kimchi. It's quick, efficient and inexpensive. But it rarely has the flavor of the traditional, small-batch stuff.
Fortunately, Los Angeles, with its huge population of Korean Americans, is the epicenter of U.S. kimchi production -- but you have to know where to find it. So get ready to go hard on Napa cabbage, mu radish, garlic chives and petite cucumbers at L.A.'s best standalone kimchi shops.
Kae Sung Market
The grand dame of Koreatown kimchi markets is, like all kimchi stores, a hole-in-the-wall that makes most convenience stores look palatial. I thought I was missing part of the shop but it turns out that Kae Sung's handful of refrigerators hold enough kimchi to feed a city of fermentation fans. Owner Sook-Jae Cho opened the boutique outfit in 1989, after fleeing North Korea and coming to Los Angeles in the '70s. You should know what you want before you come or you'll have to do some interpreting. As their voicemail proclaims, "No English." Kae Sung offers elegant kimchi varieties, some in the style of Cho's hometown, Kaesung, a food city located near the border with South Korea. Their assortment of spicy, red kimchis is great but if you've had those before, why not try a rarer variety renowned in North Korea? Dongchimi is a crisp, refreshing fall favorite made with mu radish in a white broth flavored by pear, ginger, scallions and mild chilies. You'll never look at kimchi the same way again.
1010 S. St. Andrews Place, Koreatown. 213-737-6565.
Monday - Saturday: 8 a.m. - 7 p.m.
You may think you know Kimchi Nara because you've scooped up a jar of their kimchi at H Mart. Sure, the grocery store carries a few varieties of this award-winning local brand -- mak (chopped) kimchi, chonggak (bachelor/ponytail) kimchi, yulmu put baechu (small radish and Napa cabbage) kimchi -- but the Kimchi Nara mothership in Garden Grove boasts the jackpot. That includes a piquant buchu (garlic chive) kimchi, a fresh dongchimi, a tong (radish cut in halves) kimchi and a mellow baek (white) kimchi. Owners Sang Kook Han, who's from Jang-ang and Moo-Seon Han, from Daegu, have been at it since 2004 and their prowess has landed their products at H Marts across California. In 2018, they won first place for kimchi at Orange County's 100 Year Korean Immigration Anniversary. Their crowd-pleasing Southern kimchis come in two styles: Type A (hot) and Type B (mild). If you're buying for a church, restaurant or supermarket, Kimchi Nara offers a discounted rate, and when you order two or more large jars of kimchi, you can get it delivered if you're in the Garden Grove area.
8769 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove. 714-530-5800.
Monday - Friday: 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.; Sunday: 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.
This strip mall market features the crunchiest and most satisfying chonggak kimchi I've ever bought. Chatting with the friendly staff is also an education. Did you know that "chonggak" means "bachelor" and that this treat is so named because it features a radish leaf stem that resembles a ponytail, a common hairstyle among bachelor men in ancient Korea? The clients here are dedicated, in-the-know folks who buy large quantities of kimchi but if you don't know what you're doing, staffers will gamely answer your queries. They say that most novices opt for the mak kimchi because it's easiest to eat, since it's already cut into bite-size pieces. My family prefers whole cabbage kimchi, which you can drop into your mouth in one long piece so it floods your tastebuds. But mak kimchi is the best when you're in a rush and making a quick rice bowl. Come hungry. The smallest size is a half-gallon glass jar.
1144 S. Western Ave., Koreatown. 323-732-1144.
Monday - Saturday: 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Ktown and Garden Grove aren't the only Korean strongholds in the greater L.A. area. Gardena and Torrance in the South Bay have large and hungry Korean populations. At Miraku Kimchi, you can sample the napa cabbage, cucumber and radish kimchi before you buy. The chef, Mrs. Kim, was born and raised in Japan and learned to reproduce kimchi from her Korean mother's traditional recipe. She experimented with the recipe by incorporating Japanese ingredients. As a young chef in Japan, she experimented with mochi powder, scallop powder and Japanese bouillon made with shiitake and seaweed to create a supremely rich kimchi. Her concoction was such a success, she began selling it at Shibuya's pricy Tokyu Department Store. A dozen years later, she brought her recipe to Gardena. She uses fish sauce instead of shrimp jeotgal and adds mushrooms, both of which imbue her kimchi with a deep umami flavor. Mrs. Kim also sells seasoned miso and a rotating variety of banchan. At 6 to 12 ounces, containers here are far smaller than at most other kimchi stores.
18535 S Western Ave., Gardena. 424-396-3620.
Monday - Saturday: 11:30 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Seoul Do Soon Yi Kimchi Company
This cash-only establishment is super friendly. When you pop in, the clerk at the counter will answer your questions in English or Korean. The tiny store doesn't have much choice -- or much space -- but you'll be in and out in less than three minutes. That's part of the charm. Choose from gallon-sized jars of cucumber, mak (cut) cabbage kimchi, whole pogi cabbage kimchi or white kimchi. The kimchi here is so fresh and garlicky you might want to let it ferment longer before you chow down. All you have to do is plop it in your fridge for a few days until it achieves the taste you like. But if you prefer your kimchi ultra fresh, there's no need to wait. Have at it. Either way, bring your jar back and you'll get a 50-cent discount on your next order. What were you going to do with those huge jars anyway, make sauerkraut?
9972 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove. 714-638-5424.
Monday - Saturday: 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Sunday: 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.