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Why is Korean food so expensive? [moved from New England board]

I really like Korean food and have found some good places recently (Woo Jung in Ayer and Hee Bin in Lawrence. I almost tried the one in Worcester) but I don't understand why most entrees are at least twice as expensive as any decent Chinese or other Asian fare. Appetizers commonly run around $12-13, too. Scallion pancakes, for example, as always well over 10 bucks. I've made them, I know what goes into them. Hee Bin has something called "Korean Jambalaya", which appears to be seafood in noodles, for which they charge 40 dollars (they say it serves 3-4). As far as I can tell, the ingredients are more expensive or cooking effort isn't significantly greater. I want to patronize these places more often but ordering several dishes really boosts the bill.

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  1. "Idon't understand why most entrees are at least twice as expensive as any decent Chinese or other Asian fare."

    I think much of it has to do with preconceived pricing attitudes among the dining public. I imagine most people think Chinese and Indian entrees, for example, *should* cost between $7.95 and $13.95. But an "Italian Bistro" can charge $15.95 for a pasta and chicken dish with less food cost than many Chinese dishes, even assuming similar overhead costs.

    I suspect Korean is viewed as a bit more exotic, and certainly having less local competition of the same cuisine, and therefore can get away with charging more.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Uncledave

      I definitely agree with you about the perceived notion of how much Asian food costs. True, a pasta marinara can fetch for over $10 while "Chinese shrimp and broccoli" should be $8.95.

      In Korean restaurants, you also get free panchan, which I'm sure is why the cost is a bit higher than other Asian restaurants. Depending on the restaurant, panchan can be up to 10 extra dishes. BBQ and jungols are also usually priced higher than other items because of the tableside preparation.

      1. re: Miss Needle

        i'm glad someone mentioned the panchan, which is free but obviously not when factored into the pricing of dishes. and that expensive "seafood jambalaya" the OP mentioned sounds like some sort of chongol/hotpot prep. those are always quite expensive. and most restaurant green onion pancakes are seafood pa jun, not just regular pa jun.

    2. There's also the notion, as common among restaurants as any business, that what you charge advertises to some extent how good your product is. If you're a Korean restaurant owner and you want to distinguish your restau from the everyday place, maybe you charge a bit more to imply that your food is better. And maybe if you know other Korean restau owners in the region, you all agree to do the same.

      1. always thought it was to cover expensive venting, grilling systems

        1. Next time in Lawrence go to Garden House instead of Hee Bin. No table-top grills but lots of noodle soups, bibimbab, bokum... kalbi and bulgogi are prepared by the chef (not at your table). They also have chongol (Jambalaya) for the table - the tripe is about $25.00. It's a mom & pop place - not nearly as flashy as Hee Bin. It's been around a lot longer, and if you ask local Korean folk, they'll all tell you that they prefer Garden House.

          1. I can't think of ANY style or category of food in which you can't find a full range of pricing schemes, regardless of how inexpensive the "average" exemplar is - from $20+ hamburgers to $40 curries, and on and on.

            So what other qualities (beside superior ingredients and preparation) do you expect to find in a high-end restaurant? What else, other than the burger, or curry, or pad thai, are you paying for?

            Ambience, certainly. Service and amenities, flair and cachet, usually. But then I read daily, here and elsewhere, "the bill was $200 for the two of us, and the service was awful and the food inedible - do you think I should have said something?"

            That's why I restrict my travels to little places where the cook just got off the boat, the food is usually sublime, and after a generous (say, maybe 30% tip, which usually only means $7 or $8) the staff greets me on my subsequent visits like I was a member of the family.

            $10 scallion pancakes, $40 "Korean seafood jambalaya"? On whose expense account?

            1 Reply
            1. re: wayne keyser

              I'm assuming the Korean Seafood Jambalaya is cham-ppong

            2. If you're ordering something like kalbi or bul go ki you're getting a plate full of meat. The quality of that meat should influence the price but the simple fact is that meat costs more than veg. Many Asian cuisines use meat as a "flavoring agent" or an accent to the vegetables and rice. It is not meant to be the main ingredient. This is true in particular for Chinese restaurants. I've found that, at least in my area, Chinese restaurants who cater to a more American clientele serve a much higher proportion of meat to veg in their dishes and their prices are comensurately higher.

              A Korean grilled meat dish, even with the lettuce wrapper, sauces, and side dishes, is meant to be a dish of meat. One "serving" of kalbi will have more beef in it than one "serving" of a Chinese beef dish. In this case, the restaurant's product costs are simply higher and must be passed along.

              Having said that, I agree with the other posters about other factors that may influence the price and I certainly can't say that I understand $10 scallion pancakes either.

              1. I think the problem with your price varient is regional. I find most all Asain restaurants in my neck of the woods to be comparable. There are ranges from 'hole-in-the-wall' prices to semi-fine dining in Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. But then again, the competition here is big as we have so many places that you can choose from and areas to go to.

                1. i often find the portion size at korean restaurants to be immense, which for me goes a long way towards explaining the prices. the sauteed monkfish in spicy sauce that i love so much is usually around $20 but is enough for three, and it's basically all fish. likewise, when you order for the barbecue you're getting a big plate of sliced meat or chicken or shrimp with no filler.

                  i'm not sure if i've ever seen scallion pancakes on a korean restaurant menu. do you mean pajun, the large pancake?

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: wleatherette

                    Agreed! I always balk at the prices on the menu in most Korean places, and then (after a couple of hours of eating and ordering and eating and ordering) somehow magically in a large-ish group it works out to be between $20 and $30 per person. Everyone's full, we've order 5 or 6 things from the menu, and we're in ecstatic food comas. Korean is a great option for group dining, but I can see how dinner for two could be very pricey.

                    1. re: ballulah

                      this is true. unless i'm getting a lunch special or going to a cafeteria-type place, i tend to save korean food for group dining. i agree that a meal for one or two can be expensive if you're not ordering bi bim bap or a soup or stew.

                  2. I've eaten at several Korean chicken restaurants in NYC and I've experienced the same thing. We ordered a "large" chicken wing order which cost $14. There were 7 wing pieces total on the plate. That worked out to $2 per piece!! They were really good, but c'mon!! I wonder how many were on the small order!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: fudluvr

                      i had the opposite experience. our medium order of chicken from bon chon was $11 (possibly $13), and it was huge - 3 or 4 large drumsticks, 3 smaller "drumettes," and 4 or 5 large wings.

                      1. re: wleatherette

                        Here in Pittsburgh I find the Indian, Chinese, Thai, Korean etc. all to be priced pretty close to each other, that is nearly the entire menu under $15.

                      2. re: fudluvr

                        Have you tried going to Han Bat on W. 35 St.? You can get a nice bowl of good bibimbap with 6 banchan and some sulong tang if you like, and get out of there for some $13 plus tip. I call that damn inexpensive, on a par with Chinese restaurants if not in fact a better value.

                        1. re: Pan

                          I may have to do that tonight!

                      3. It's regional I think. Korean food in LA is so cheap.. (still not as cheap as Vietnamese food though).

                        1 order of Galbi in LA can easily feed 2 people. In NY, "1 order" is not even enough for 1 person..