Exploring Korean Cuisine in Boston

Jacqueline Cain

From music and movies to cosmetics and clothing, Korean popular culture is a major global export. But when Marissa Ferola, founder of Nine Winters Bakery, sought to connect with her Korean roots, “the easiest way to dive in, for me,” she says, “was through food.”

To celebrate “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” at the MFA, I spoke to Korean Americans in the local food scene about connecting with their cultural cuisine in Boston.

Korean Barbecue

With banchan (side dishes such as marinated cucumbers, pickled radishes, and sautéed bean sprouts) on every table, the convivial atmosphere at Naksan BBQ in Allston “brings fond memories” of family meals, says James Choi, founder of Perillas, a fast-casual specialist in bibimbap (Korean rice bowls). “It’s part of Korean culture to serve one another and to enjoy socially dining together,” Choi says. Naksan’s staff grills to order centerpiece meats, such as galbi (marinated, thinly sliced beef short ribs) and pork belly, right at your table.

Soups and Stews

“Soups, stews, and broths are fundamental to Korean cuisine,” says chef KT Cheung, a veteran of Boston fine-dining kitchens who hosts pop-up Korean dinners. She often craves a pork and rice soup called dwaeji gukbap from Allston’s Seoul Jangteo. With a rich, cloudy broth made of pork bones, “it was a commoner’s food that was accessible and filling,” Cheung explains. “Gukbap is such a comforting food, and to me Korean food is comfort food.”

Seolleongtang is a traditional beef bone soup and the namesake of Allston restaurant Seoul Soulongtang. “That’s what they’re known for, but all of their dishes are really good,” says Heather Kim, founder of mochi donut company Pon de Joy. Kim also enjoys the spicy pork neck soup called gamjatang from Allston’s Hanmaru.

A woman with a black beanie, a cooking apron, and black gloves pulls noodles from a storage container in a kitchen.
KT Cheung prepares a meal for a Lunar New Year pop-up dinner at Kimchipapi Kitchen. 

Soondubu from Kaju Tofu House is a spicy soft tofu soup—and another humble pleasure. “Whenever I go home, my mom always prepares me soondubu,” says Choi, who loves the homemade ingredients of Kaju’s version. It’s available with a choice of protein—Ferola says seafood lovers like herself should go for the version with clams—and is served with rice and kimchi on the side.

Hearty, savory kimchi-jjigae—a spicy stew served over rice—“encapsulates the best of Korean cuisine” to Alex Kim, owner of Allston fusion hot spot Coreanos and Brighton café Glasser Coffee Co. His favorite version (besides his mother’s, of course) is from Koreana Restaurant in Cambridge. “It’s rich, packed full of umami from the kimchi, pork, and seafood stock, and is one of my favorite comfort foods.”

Joon Son, founder of Kimchipapi Kitchen, grew up in New York City, the East Coast hub of Korean American culture. His family moved to Massachusetts when he was a teenager and his mother took over a now-closed Somerville restaurant called Wuchon House. Son eventually opened his Allston restaurant, explaining, “I wanted to create food that I wanted to eat.” Kimchipapi Kitchen is the only place he’ll order budaejjigae, a dish combining processed American ingredients like Spam and stringy cheese in a spicy Korean broth. Other restaurants “kind of skimp on the Spam,” Son says. “They’ll use an imitation. It just doesn't hit the same.”

When he isn’t eating stews at his own Allston restaurant, Son goes to Korean Garden for kalbi tang—beef broth with prime short ribs and scallions. “It just reminds me of my mother’s cooking and the restaurant that we grew up with,” he says.

Street Food and Bar Snacks

Kimbap are seaweed-wrapped rice rolls with various fillings. Tteokbokki are chewy rice sticks tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce. Since he first tried both foods at street food stalls in Korea, Alex Kim has loved ordering them together at Seoul Topokki in Allston. “Koreans love to dip the kimbap in the tteokbokki sauce for a hearty yet healthy combo,” he shares.

Anju is the Korean word for food consumed with alcohol. Seoul Soulongtang offers a lesser-known favorite of Heather Kim’s: golbaengi-muchim, a cold appetizer of snails and crunchy vegetables tossed in a spicy sauce and served with thin noodles. “It’s savory and a great accompaniment to soju,” she says.


Son and Alex Kim reminisce about getting Chinese fusion delivered in Korea. “The driver would pull up on their motorbike, with metal cases in the back or sometimes carried by hand while driving,” Kim recalls. “You’d just leave the bowls stacked neatly outside and they’d return later to retrieve them.” Jjajangmyun, a sautéed noodle dish with pork and vegetables in a sweet-and-salty black bean sauce, was a favorite order then. Now, Son and Kim get it from Seoul Jangteo and Somerville’s Buk Kyung.

A man wearing a black hat, black t shirt, and several gold chains stands with his tattooed arms crossed in front of a graffiti-style mural that reads "Kimchipapi."
Joon Son, founder of Kimchipapi Kitchen.

Today, Son and Kim both specialize in fusion flavors. Kimchipapi Kitchen brought Korean-style corn dogs to the Boston scene: hot dogs are dipped in a bodacious batter to be fried and coated with crispy sugar or Hot Cheetos. Coreanos, meanwhile, pioneered locally the Los Angeles–born fusion of Mexican and Korean cuisines with the likes of bulgogi tacos, spicy pork quesadillas, and kimchi fritas (French fries).

Mochi donuts are American and Japanese, not Korean; but the airy, chewy treat “is a familiar texture” to K-food fans, says Heather Kim of Pon de Joy. “She makes the best mochi donuts in the city,” says Ferola. “They’re almost bouncy.” Ferola also appreciates that Pon de Joy—which has locations in Allston, Newton Centre, Malden, and soon Andover—offers American-style flavors alongside the likes of black sesame and injeolmi, a roasty, nutty Korean rice cake. “You can have the best of both worlds,” Ferola says.

And that’s important to her. Ferola was born in Incheon before being adopted and raised by a white family on the South Shore of Massachusetts. It was only after moving to Boston at 20 years old that she met more Asian Americans and tasted global cuisines.

With Nine Winters Bakery, her pop-up currently seeking a permanent shop, Ferola also combines Asian ingredients with Western-style baked goods, such as her double chocolate–hot honey cookies spiked with spicy fermented chili paste. It’s a concept she developed with her children, now ages six and three, to familiarize them with cultural flavors.

“I always felt a disconnect when I was growing up,” Ferola says. “But even in exploring Korean culture as an adult, it sometimes feels like, ‘Am I not enough?’ It can be difficult to feel like you’re one or the other. But really, I am both. I grew up here, but my Korean heritage is still who I am,” she continues. “And it means something to celebrate both and know that you’re not one or the other. You’re this whole third thing.”


Jacqueline Cain is a writer whose work appears on Edible Boston, Wine Enthusiast, America’s Test Kitchen websites and more. She is a former food editor at the Food Lens and Boston magazine.