Korea comes to Chinatown: Topped restaurant

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An astute downtownie might have noticed that the latest restaurant openings in Chinatown have been on and around Bethel Street, on the outer fringe of the 36-acre district. Korean newcomer Topped is different. It will have you venturing into the thick of Chinatown for sizzling bi bim bap bowls and tender kalbi ssam wraps.

Topped is located in the middle of Chinatown, on Hotel Street between Smith and Maunakea Streets.

Topped is located in the heart of Chinatown, on Hotel Street between Smith and Maunakea.

Topped started as a stall at King’s Village farmers market in Waikiki in late 2015, serving up casual bi bim bap cups (cup bap) and kalbi short ribs. As of this past Tuesday the restaurant has a new permanent home on Hotel Street. High ceilings, slate-colored walls and monochromatic tables and dinnerware provide the perfect backdrop for Korea’s violently colorful cuisine – it’s as if you used an app to enhance its vibrancy.

You'll do good by starting with a jeon platter for $9 and includes six mini jeon pancakes. You may choose between beef, kimchi, green onion with squid, shrimp with paprika, zucchini and corn or have them all like a sampler.

You’ll do good by starting with a jeon platter of six mini jeon pancakes for $9. Choose between beef, kimchi, green onion with squid, shrimp with paprika, zucchini and corn or have them all like a sampler.

The menu is simple and easy to approach. Starters include homemade mandoo, tofu kimchi or ahi salad for $8 each or a hard-to-pass-up plate of jeon, a.k.a. Korean pancakes, for $9. For mains, you have a choice of several bi bim bap (their specialty) for $13-18, ssam lettuce wraps ($20-22), or dup bap rice bowls ($13-15).

Although variety is nice to have, I favored the corn jeon over the rest as it reminded me of buttery pan fried corn fritters. The dipping sauce is light with hints of sesame oil, shoyu and rice wine.

The bi bim bap arrives on a hefty tray with enormous bottles of gochujang and ganjang sauces, a few banchan and miso soup.

Your bi bim bap arrives with enormous bottles of gochujang and a special shoyu sauce, some banchan side dishes and miso soup. When ordering, let the server know if you want your rice crispy so the chef can cook it that way.

The spicy pork bi bim bap ($15) is a cornucopia of texture and flavor. Bap cognoscenti will appreciate the generous amount of shiitake mushrooms, pork, seaweed, cucumber, carrot, radish and cabbage that come together with the broken egg yolk. Fragrant sesame oil permeates the entire bowl. Other baptions include kalbi ($18), bulgogi ($16), chicken ($15) and tofu ($14). The stone bowl is a $1 option that you must have, because what is bi bim bap without the dolsot?

I used both gochujang chili pepper sauce and gajang to achieve preferred spice level. The gajang adds a sweet twang that counters the heat of the gochujang - a nice touch.

I used both gochujang chili sauce and gajang to achieve preferred spice level. The gajang adds a sweet twang that counters the heat of the gochujang – a nice touch.

If you’re on a carb-less diet, consider getting the ssam kalbi or bulgogi wraps and forego the rice for more leaves of fresh Manoa lettuce.

You don't see ssam wraps on menus of local Korean restaurants, so I was surprised to see them here.

You don’t see ssam wraps at many local Korean restaurants.

For $22, you get a decent amount of boneless kalbi meat along with six lettuce leaves, miso soup and banchan. The kimchi, made in-house, is one of the better ones I’ve tasted. You can always ask for more banchan when your dishes run low.

The kal bi could have stayed in the marinade a little longer, however, the meat was tender and I didn't have any bones to deal with. The garlic cloves were delightful.

The kalbi could have stayed in the marinade a little longer, but the meat was tender and I didn’t have any bones to deal with. The garlic cloves were delightful.

The owner and chef, Justin Sok, walked us through the menu. He let us have a taste of his homemade mandoo, delicious pork and scallion dumplings pan-fried ’til crisp, and we’ll be ordering them on our next visit. He tells us he’s keeping his menu strictly Korean and wants to focus on solid dishes before branching out to specials and other items. You can also expect Korean libations like soju, makgeolli and beer when they get their liquor license.

A sign of legitimacy: call buttons on the ends of each table signal busy servers that you need some assistance.

A sign of legitimacy: call buttons on the ends of each table signal busy servers that you need some assistance.

Your meal ends with a small sipping bowl of iced plum tea to aid in digestion – a nice way to close out an eating marathon.

Some plum tea to aid digestion.

Some plum tea to aid digestion.

Topped
66 N. Hotel Street
Chinatown
Lunch 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Dinner 5 – 10 p.m.