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It’s banchan heaven at Perilla L.A.

Perilla's lunch-box dosirak with cod and gimbap.
Find lunch-box dosirak with cod and gimbap at Jihee Kim’s seasonal banchan shop Perilla.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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Los Angeles food obsessives have long deliberated over which Koreatown restaurants serve the finest spreads of banchan — and whether the merit in a given flurry of small plates lays in the care of each dish’s individual preparation, or in the sheer variety, or both. Soban, Genwa and Park’s are three easy icebreakers for such open-ended debates.

When Jihee Kim began her Perilla L.A. takeout project in summer 2020, she taught many of us to savor banchan as the meal itself. In her hands it was a given that this class of dishes, so full of geometries and colors and so urgent in flavor, commanded center stage at lunch or dinner.

I can easily relive the first tastes of her food: halved, tapered okra pods charred for faint smokiness and then marinated in soy sauce and vinegar. Crisp-soft slices of summer squash animated by garlic-chile oil. Spicy fermented cucumber coupled with fragrant melon. Bulgogi tangled with tofu skin that had been cut to mimic the beef’s texture. And her signature visual stunner: rolled omelet, no thicker than luxury cardstock, coiled around seaweed and cleaved into circles with hypnotic, spiraling centers.

An array of banchan from Perilla L.A.
Perilla L.A. owner and chef Jihee Kim.

An array of banchan from Perilla L.A. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times) Perilla L.A. owner and chef Jihee Kim. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

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Details inside Perilla L.A.
Inside tiny Perilla, shelves are stocked with considered grocery items by chef-owner Jihee Kim.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Instant enthusiasm for her Perilla pop-up spurred Kim to begin looking at spaces to house a banchan shop. It took three years, but in July she opened her storefront in a converted garage that’s part of an emerging complex of food businesses in Victor Heights, a tiny neighborhood on the edge of Chinatown that borders Echo Park.

Locating the place can feel like a treasure hunt on the first visit: Follow GPS to the address and look for the clutch of peachy-orange buildings along Alpine Street. Turn the corner at Heavy Water Coffee and follow the row of tables shaded with umbrellas to Perilla’s gabled, 260-square-foot roost.

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Its summer launch echoed the season during which I ate the initial Perilla takeout meals. Here again was the charred okra, the pairing of cucumber and melon and the garlicky squash, all as wonderful as ever. Other warm-weather pleasures appeared among them, including fermented tomatillos tempered with maesil (green plum syrup) and sesame oil, and chopped Italian peppers brightened with yuzu and rice vinegar.

Small portions of the day’s banchan selection also come over rice as part of a dosirak, the Korean lunch box that is analogue to Japanese bento, served in the shop’s early days with hot chicken or cod smeared with a doenjang marinade that particularly draws out the sweetness in the fish. One round of the rolled omelet usually pops out canary-yellow from among the dosirak’s melee of ingredients.

Gimbap from Perilla L.A.
An order of gimbap filled with avocado, cucumber and other vegetables, served with a tiny bottle of sesame oil.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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Finding a home for Perilla cements a path that Kim always suspected she’d follow. She grew up in Busan, South Korea, where her parents run a restaurant started by one of her grandmothers nearly 40 years ago. Her father still roams the market each morning buying produce to make banchan. As a teenager she was enlisted in the laborious brining and fermenting of soybeans and cooked barley to create doenjang.

Kim moved to the Golden State when she was 20, first living in the San Diego area before relocating to San Francisco for culinary school. Cooking at places like fine-dining staple Gary Danko and now-closed Range in the Mission introduced her to the rhythms of the Bay Area growing seasons. She and her husband drifted back down the coast to be closer to his family in Los Angeles, and it was a natural fit when she found a place in the kitchen at Rustic Canyon, with its close ties to the Santa Monica farmers market.

In forging her own aesthetic, Kim superbly marries the local harvests to grounded Korean traditions. She isn’t attempting to re-create kimchi by tossing cabbage in, say, harissa and escabeche and pickled ginger and justifying it as “California influence.”

Her unions make sense to the mind and taste buds. She currently uses blanched collards for her most pungent kimchi, fermenting roughly hacked greens in gochugaru, fish sauce, garlic and ginger. The seasonings form a spicy halo on the palate, pleasantly stinging the lips and meeting the collards’ sturdy texture.

Cod smeared with a doenjang marinade that particularly draws out the sweetness in the fish.
Cod smeared with a doenjang marinade that particularly draws out the sweetness in the fish.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 30: Details outside Perilla LA on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA.(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
Perilla L.A., as owner and chef, Jihee Kim, preps for service.

Perilla L.A., as owner and chef, Jihee Kim, preps for service. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

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The merest honeyed note also comes through from plum syrup, which is Kim’s secret weapon. I taste its tart-sweet essence most clearly in another favorite banchan: fermented cabbage and herbal perilla leaves neatly stacked in alternating layers. Its gently piercing qualities are excellent alongside the cod dosirak.

There’s a real joy in being able to enjoy this food on the spot at a shaded table. The day’s selection of banchan included in the dosirak, or presented on a combo plate of rice and four banchan, might give me ideas on what to take home in larger quantities for future lunches.

And a straight-up spread of banchan — punctuated maybe with an order of gimbap filled with avocado, cucumber and other vegetables, or the crinkly cold noodles in soy-garlic dressing often available on weekends — is fundamentally communal. We mix, we match, we pass the rice; you take the smoked egg with its jellied yolk, I go heavy on the collards and the sweet peppers.

Perilla, born in a time of isolation, has bloomed at last into a vital new daytime destination.

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April 7, 2022

Perilla LA

1027 Alpine St., Building E, Los Angeles, perillala.com

Prices: Banchan $6-$8 per container, dosirak $18-$20, other rice-based plates $15-$18.50.

Details: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Wine and beer, including a small retail selection. Limited on-site seating. Street parking.

Recommended dishes: Cod dosirak, banchan and rice combo, fermented cabbage with perilla leaf, collard greens kimchi, rolled egg.

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