A straight-forward, crowd pleasing Italian-American icon, garlic bread has plenty in common with Frank Sinatra. Korean garlic bread, on the other hand, is pure BTS: a multi-pronged, insanely irresistible, over-the-top sensory overload.
Over the last several months, the pull-apart, cream cheese-filled, sauce-dunked, vampire-proof loaf has gone viral and among the people to take notice was Alex Sohn, a Los Angeles-based restaurateur who has a knack for sniffing out popular Korean culinary trends and transplanting back them to the West Coast. But none of his foodie finds has caused as much of a sensation back home as Korean garlic bread, the sole offering at his LA pop-up smash Calic Bread which he runs with his wife Sun.
During a recent interview with Sohn he discussed the ins and outs of the drool-worthy indulgence, its ascension to food porn centerfold status, and his plan to spread the carbs across America.
While there are multiple iterations of Korean garlic bread including mini-versions, Sohn opted to stick with the go-big-or-go-home classic preparation. It all starts with a sizeable sourdough foundation. According to Sohn, the loaf used at Calic Bread is approximately 8” wide and 4” tall which is a lot of bread. (Unless you’re Joey Chestnut or of his competitive eating ilk, this is a snack that’s meant for sharing).
It’s sliced from the top into six wedges with the base intact, allowing it to blossom. Next, plenty of garlic-infused cream cheese is piped between those newly formed petals as if it’s a mega-sized bagel. Now it’s time to dunk that sucker into a creamy pool of sauce: lots of garlic (of course), butter, heavy cream, and parsley, along with sugar and condensed milk. “Asian breads are more of dessert breads,” says Sohn. “They have a little bit of sweetness.”
After a quick soak, the bread gets an extra squirt of the garlic cream cheese in the center and is finished with a sprinkle of herbs and potato flakes (dehydrated spuds). Finally, it’s hauled off to the oven, resulting in a crispy crust and soft interior, another signature of Asian bread making.
According to Sohn, the origins of Korean garlic bread are debatable, but the city most synonymous with the dish is Gangneung. The mid-sized town on South Korea’s east coast has been serving up the artery-clogging spin on garlic bread for decades.
But beginning in 2019, the style became a menu staple at multiple restaurant franchises and department store food halls across the peninsula, and in recent months, photos and videos of the indulgent treat have garnered attention on international social media.
Sohn, who regularly travels to Korea, got his first taste of the hype during a trip to Seoul last fall. “It was phenomenal,” he recalls. Back home, he enlisted his wife Sun, an avid home cook and baker, to try her hand at Korean garlic bread and soon she became a master at the craft.
“We were never thinking of actually making this a business or going public,” acknowledges Sohn. But after earning rave reviews from family and friends, with Sun, a preschool teacher, forced to shelter-in-place due to the pandemic, they decided to take the plunge and Calic Bread was born.
The takeout-only business immediately found a receptive audience; no surprise since Los Angeles is home to the largest Korean population outside of Asia. But as word quickly spread beyond Koreatown, some adjustments were made to Sun’s recipe, namely the sweetness.
“We had to kind of balance it out for a couple of months,” Sohn admits. “At one point, we actually just took out all of the sweetness, but then our regulars gave us a lot of feedback and they really wanted us to have that original characteristic of Asian bread. So, we now balance it out so that it’s still crunchy outside, and there’s some sweetness but it’s not overwhelming.”
They’ve also added two additional versions to the menu: Monster, which is loaded with mozzarella and cheddar (because you can never have too much cheese), and a recently introduced creamed corn iteration. “My wife came up with that,” says Sohn. “Corn is very popular in Korea, especially at pubs and bars.”
The Sohns now offer their Korean garlic bread on a once-per-week basis through their website both as fully-baked ready-to-eat loaves and parbaked meal kits that you can finish in your own oven. Though the entire week’s allotment have been selling out within minutes, a recent move to a larger kitchen will amp up production to keep up with demand including national distribution via Goldbelly.
Calic Bread Original Garlic Cream Cheese Bread (2-Pack), $79 from Goldbelly
Prepare to fall in love.
Ambitious bread bakers can also try making a Korean Cream Cheese Garlic Bread recipe at home (made with a milk bread base rather than sourdough).