Bulgolgi burgers, tteokbokki and natural wine in Koreatown

I recently attempted to explain my new favorite restaurant to a friend. Things got complicated, quickly.

The restaurant is called Red Room. Well, it’s sort of a restaurant, sort of a pop-up. Yes, the room is red, but it’s not actually painted red. There are lights along the walls that give it a red neon glow. It’s inside a coffee shop in Koreatown called Coffee MCO, but the place serves dinner Thursdays to Sundays. You order at the counter downstairs and the dining room is upstairs.

You could order coffee for dinner but there’s natural wine, beer and soju cocktails. The chef is also a practicing medical doctor. I guess I’d say the food leans Korean, but it feels distinctly of Los Angeles.

Yes, there is a free parking lot in the back, but if the attendant doesn’t remember you coming in, he’ll question you about where you were on your way out.

“That sounds very L.A.,” the friend said with a laugh.

I guess it does.

Dr. Yoon Sung works shifts at two urgent care facilities at the start of the week. On Wednesdays, he’s at a farmers market. From Thursday through Saturday, he’s in the kitchen at Red Room.

After college, Sung started a cooking blog and worked as a line cook and pastry cook at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. All throughout medical school and his residency at Stanford, Sung taught himself new recipes and spent hours in the kitchen after work and school. He’s cooked at Chimmelier and Hanchic in Los Angeles.

The potato jeons from Red Room in Koreatown.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times )

The potato jeons at Red Room are Sung’s souped-up tater tots, inspired by his childhood in Seoul and the six weeks he spent living in Argentina during the last year of medical school.

“I think it’s one of my signature dishes because there are so many pancakes in Korean cuisine,” Sung says. “Sometimes they can be a little soggy, so I wanted to have more like a potato pancake texture but the outside really crispy.”

The petite golden squares have the crunch of a tater tot with a soft, gnocchi-like center that’s as silky as Robuchon’s pommes purée. Sung showers the jeons in grated Parmesan cheese, slivers of red onion and lemon zest. They’re served alongside a cup of chimichurri infused with the minty, citrusy notes of perilla leaves.

A single perilla leaf is the unsung hero in Sung’s bulgolgi burger. It’s nestled between lettuce and marinated cucumbers, bulldozing through the double meat and cheese patties and the two onion rings with a jolt of freshness.

The bulgolgi burger from Red Room in Koreatown.

The bulgolgi burger from Red Room in Koreatown.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s kind of inspired by this fast food chain in Korea called Lotteria,” Sung says. “They have this old school bulgolgi burger, and it was my treat from my mom after we went to the dentist.”

The meat is coated in a bulgolgi glaze that’s sweet with sugar and soy, sesame and garlic. The marinated cucumbers are reminiscent of the oi muchim you’ll find in a good banchan set. If you can resist plucking the onion rings from the burger, they provide height and crunch.

“I was thinking about how bulgolgi is so everywhere in Korean barbecue, but how can I make it more wine-bar friendly and something approaching hearty,” Sung says.

There’s a sort of “aha” moment with each dish as you trace its kinship with various other cultures and cuisines. Listed on the menu as RR ragu, it’s a bowl with ties to Italian meat sauce, Korean tteokboki and Mexican picadillo.

Ragu over fried rice cakes from Red Room in Koreatown.

Ragu over fried rice cakes from Red Room in Koreatown.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times )

Jung says his sous chef Daniel Chong is responsible for the ragu, a long-simmered tomato sauce dense with ground beef and warm with Mexican oregano and bay leaf. It’s a ragu you could eat like chili.

In place of pasta are fried rice cakes, both crunchy and chewy. The dish is garnished with small dollops of a bright and acidic cilantro and jalapeño sauce, a mountain of grated Parmesan and torn Thai basil. Each spoonful is equally baffling and thrilling.

At Red Room, it’s easy to lose track of time with a steady onslaught of small plates and wine. As the night darkens, the room glows redder and the plates are replaced with a growing number of wine glasses on the tables.

When I got to the end of my long and winding description of the restaurant, my friend said it sounded like a nice place to spend an evening. It is.

Where to go for natural wine and a burger in Koreatown

Red Room, 2580 W. Olympic Blvd. #2 Los Angeles, www.redroom.la

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