“Bibi ce midi?” A Month of Lunch at Bibibap La Boca

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Unmotivated, lethargic, unhappy. Stuck in an enforced hibernation in my lonesome Bordeaux bubble with a soul-crushing curfew, starving for places and faces, both familiar and new. I sometimes re-read my old articles about the street food of Mongkok, the asados in Argentina, the 18-course tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park. These places and people seem galaxies away now. I yearn to scratch this growing itch to move, to experience and to learn, but for now that seems impossible. For now, it seems best to embrace dormancy and use this time to survive, reassess and gather strength for things to come. Anyway…

With my wings tagged, I’m obliged to focus on what is around me. These days, that’s a restaurant next to my office called Bibibap with a Franco-Asian “street food” feel and a menu that features Korean specialties. The man behind the brand is Chef Huiman Yang, who was born in Seoul, moved to Bordeaux to study winemaking, worked at Japanese fusion restaurant Maruya and then decided to do his own thing. Now he has three Bibibaps around Bordeaux, one in the center, a second at Bordeaux Lac and a third at La Boca. I’ve frequented the La Boca location, which has stayed open throughout this past year. At lunchtime, there is quite a gathering out front and the wait for take-out is between 5 to 10 minutes. The interior looks original and inviting, with soothing light wood finishes. I’ve read somewhere that their tableware is as colorful and pretty as their food, but my experience has been limited to the brown take-out box, because, well, COVID.

The menu is diverse enough. Their flagship is the bibimbap, a popular Korean dish based on warm Korean purple rice topped with a colorful array of garnishes and one of five different proteins (beef, chicken, pork, tuna or tofu). There is also deopbap: the same purple rice with fewer garnishes, more of the protein (either codfish or chicken) and a matching sauce squeezed on. There are also 9 side dishes, many of which are creative new presentations of the same protein options, but some of them are altogether different. There are also two funky desserts and the choice of two “extras” for 2 euros each, kimchi or pickled radish.

Motivated by a very positive initial impression, I decided to do what I did with an empanada place called Reckons in Barcelona many moons ago – namely, to taste everything on their menu, take a picture of each dish and jot down a description. And thus began a long month of “C’est parce que j’ai un blog de nourriture et je vais faire un article…” to justify to onlooking French colleagues why I was shoving my Sony up against every morsel. “Non, c’est pas pour Instagram.” In the end I managed to taste everything I wanted at Bibibap La Boca, except the Cheese Dak side dish, which the staff informed me was impossible to prepare for take-away. Overall, I found the food at Bibibap to be a delicious and exciting lunch option, a splash of color across an otherwise drab and lackluster few weeks. 

My first choice was their Gangjung Bibimbap, with hearty chunks of sweet and sour chicken, fresh carrot and cucumber, sautéed mushrooms, green peas, pickled radish, kongnamul muchim (Korean pickled soybean sprouts) and a fried egg on a bed of Korean purple rice. A little tub of gochujang (Korean red chili paste) was served along side it for DIY application. Besides just being very visually appealing after a morning spent staring at a screen, this colorful dish combines so many complementary flavors and textures. The bright zip and fermented funk of the chilled Korean pickles balance the sweet glaze of the warm chicken and the savory rice. The naughty crispiness of the fried chicken and wholesome crunch of the fresh vegetables counteract the tender rice, while the egg yolk bleeds all over everything, binding the ingredients together even more.

The chicken, specifically, rocks. The sticky, smooth, sweet red chili glaze does not overwhelm or get gloopy, and the crust remains crunchy underneath. I don’t think the guys at Bibibap would appreciate the comparison, but this chicken brought back memories of the orange chicken at the Panda Express in the Prudential Mall food court, where I spent many an after-school afternoon with friends, doing Lord knows what. Now it’s an Eataly…

Next came the Suyuk Bibibap, starring bite-sized chunks of slow-cooked pork belly, flavored with soy sauce, with the same colorful sides on rice. This bibibap is a bit tamer in flavor profile than Gangjung, whose sweetness requires spicy and acidic ingredients to achieve balance. It’s savory all around, with a hint of tang from the pickled radish and bean sprouts. The pork belly is tantalizingly soft, falling willingly into its three natural layers: crunchy skin, slick ‘n’ smooth fat and firm yet very tender meat underneath. No less sinful than the crunchy fried and lacquered chicken, this pork also benefits from adding gochujang, which combats the sticky fat that coats the mouth after each bite. Perhaps a bit too indulgent, especially with the fried egg on top… I managed to finish only half at lunch and took the rest home to wok-fry for dinner. 

I’m not a huge fan of the Bulgogi Bibibap, which comes with thin slivers of sauteed beef in a bulgogi sauce. The latter blends soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, ginger and sesame oil, creating a very balanced combination of salty, delicately sweet and almost nutty, savory flavors. This part is great. I take more of an issue with the texture of the meat, which leans towards dry in certain bites. When the same protein is stuffed inside a taco and slathered with Korean spicy mayonnaise, it forms a delicious meaty base. But presented as a bibi bowl, there just seems to be something missing. Maybe I just had it on an off-day, when the beef wasn’t cooked to its absolute juiciest, but, for the most part, I prefer the texture of both the chicken and pork bibibaps.

Fun fact: Did you know bulgogi in Korean is pronounced “pool-goh-gee,” with a p?

I must admit, I wasn’t expecting much from the Chamchi Bibibap, and that comes partly from misunderstanding its menu description. I read « thon vapeur » and imagined ghastly, grayish chunks of steamed tuna fish, so I left this one for last. I was pleasantly surprised at the preparation of the tuna here : a kind of smooth, creamy, chilled rillettes situation, doused with Korean spicy mayo. To balance this luscious texture, the bibi was sprinkled with plenty of crunchy fried onions , which kind of got absorbed into the cream but still maintained their texture. Other than that, it was the usual : plump green peas, tangy pickled radish, warm purple rice, meaty mushrooms. A delicious bibi, not to be overlooked.

Deopbap is the even more copious alternative to bibibap, basically twice the amount of your protein of choice on a bed of purple rice and some layers of crunch and freshness here and there. I tried the Mulgogi Deopbap Spicy, which comes with a generous layer of breaded and fried cod filet sliced into bite-size pieces, topped with spicy Korean mayo, some paper-think sheets of nori and crispy fried onions for good measure. The fish is juicy and tender with a crunchy breaded coat, but isn’t too flavorful, making the spicy gochujang mayo, nutty nori and squirts of fresh lime over the top very necessary and much appreciated. Under the fish there is also a rather unexpected layer of kimchi and some greens wilted from the heat of the rice. The kimchi is key here, its acidity counteracting the fried stuff nicely. This dish also comes in a non-spicy version, with a yuzu-flavored tartar sauce. 

For a modest price of 2€, you can have a decent portion of kimchi on the side. This briny, funky, fermented pickle bursts out of its recyclable container guns blazing, offering tremendous flavor in each bite. A mélange of sour, pungent lactic acid with the red hot heat of the bright gochugaru (chili powder) and a kind of hearty umami in the background wakes up the palate, offering the perfect contrast to the cozy, savory flavors of the deopbap. The texture harmonizes perfectly too, with the chilled, slippery and addictively crunchy cabbage and bean sprouts complementing the tender, warm rice dish.

Mu-mu is pickled white radish, another 2€ extra at Bibibap. Open a container of these in a crowded cafeteria and it will certainly not go unnoticed, as the yeasty stank of its fermentation wafts straight out, hovering like a cloud over your dining area. Yes, they stink, but their pungent odor and acidity actually cuts through the hefty contents of your bibi-bowl nicely and offers yet another dimension of flavor. The texture is great too, cool and slippery-smooth with a healthy apple-snap when bitten into. A must-try. 

Dubu Jorim is the underrated star of the Bibibap menu, overlooked by all of my colleagues because, well, “tofu”… But braising the tofu gives it a wonderful texture, firm and tight on the exterior with a silken, smooth interior that makes it particularly easy to chop into bite-sized pieces with chopsticks. The skin is coated in a sticky, syrupy, super-flavorful sauce, which is spicy from gochujang, salty from soy, nutty from sesame oil and slightly sweet from sugar added. Four slices of this tofu are sprinkled with sesame seeds and what I think are the crunchy caramelized bits leftover from the braising process, extra little bursts of sweet and nutty flavor. By far, one of my favorite sides.

Bibibap’s Muglgogi Tartar doesn’t make too much sense as a side dish, as it is quite filling and does not pair especially well with any of the bibimbaps or deopbaps. Instead, it’s great on its own if you have the “petit faim” or paired with another side dish and a pickle for a full meal. These are basically grown-up fish sticks, the codfish they use in their Mugogi Deopbap reshaped into easy-to-grab batons, coated in a tempura-like batter and fried until golden brown. Flaky, crunchy, with plenty of flavor coming from the yuzu-flavored tartar sauce, a creamy, slightly lumpy thing with bursts of bright acid here and there. Not bad, but I could live without it.

Dak Gangjung is a hearty side which, in my opinion, must be paired with something non-meat, like a kimchi or mumu extra to keep it from being too overwhelming. The little brown takeout box reveals a generous mound of two-bite chicken chunks, crispy from a quick fry under a potato starch crust and slathered in that sticky, glossy, tangy lil’ red chili sauce that just won’t quit. It’s made with the usual stuff: soy sauce and sesame oil, ginger, honey for sweetness and All Mighty Gochujang for that spicy kick. The chicken comes topped with a few paper-thin slices of bright pink beetroot, which add a nice juicy texture and earthy essence to the dish, though not quite enough acidity to balance out the sweetness of the glaze. Some toasted peanut bits sprinkled over the top add an extra bit of crunch. Delicious, but a bit too sweet and heavy on its own.

Tteok Bokkeum is a funky little side dish that features chewy, log-shaped cakes of glutinous rice and fried sweet potato wedges doused in the sweet chili sauce that also appears on their fried chicken. I don’t think too many people order this one and I don’t think I would personally order it again, given the dense and starchy texture of the cakes and my general dislike of sweet potatoes. Next !

Bibim Mandoo is clearly the most popular side dish among my mostly-male lunch posse. These two-bite potstickers are packed tight with a dense stuffing of fragrant beef and vegetables, and deep-fried until golden brown and crunchy. Four of them are served on a bed of chopped fresh cabbage with a bit of spicy gochujang squeezed on. Some days, the seams of the wonton can get quite tough and chewy, but an excellent choice otherwise. 

The wonton wrapper of the Bibim Mandoo and the shredded beef of the Bulgogi Bibimbap are recycled to create the Sogogo Tacos, which are absolutely delicious but slightly chaotic to eat. The deep fried shell is overflowing with a symphony of Bibibap’s most popular ingredients, making it quite challenging to grab with chopsticks and lift out of its container. The main ingredient is the tender and flavorful bulgogi beef marinated in a sweet, salty and nutty base of soy sauce and sesame oil. The meat is complemented by bits of spicy, pungent kimchi under the meat, contributing a piquant touch. The whole thing is topped with crunchy fried onions, which add texture and Korean spicy mayo, which contributes another layer of flavor and binds together the ingredients. A hot mess.

Available exclusively at Bibibap Boca is Gimbap, the Korean California roll made with the same purple rice that forms the base of their bibim- and deopbaps. The warm rice is rolled up with bits of firm tofu, tender scrambled egg, crunchy pickled radish, carrot and cucumber, all wrapped in a sheet of seaweed and served sliced up into two-bite pieces. Another creative way to reuse their main ingredients, this side is easy-to-eat and perfect to satisfy a “petit faim“.

Corn-on-the-cob tends to be a messy affair, and Bibibap’s Okh Susu is no exception, which is why I waited until the very end to try this side. An ear of corn is grilled to a beautiful golden brown, chopped into thirds, drizzled with a piquant cream sauce and topped with a generous blanket of shaved parmesan. I really enjoyed the harmony of flavors here: the natural sweetness of the corn, the mustardy tang of the sauce and the nutty parmesan. The only negative I have to share about the preparation is that it was slightly cold at the core, as if not warmed through completely on the grill. I ate alone on this day, using the Bibibap takeout bag as a kind of wall to hide behind, concealing my cream-and-cheese-coated fingers from the rest of our cafeteria. One of the most delicious and fulfilling sides at Bibi, worth the public shame of eating it.

A day before Christmas break, as training for the upcoming onslaught of apero snacks, foie gras, stuffed poultry and “bûche“, we headed down to ye olde Bibi for a round of rice bowls. Greeting us on their wall was a sign announcing their holiday specials, two more dishes to add to this seemingly never-ending restaurant review. I could have just ignored these as items not part of the regular offer and not made a fool of myself photographing a takeout box in front of all of my colleagues for the millionth time this month but – well – where’s the fun in that?

I got the Curry Duck Deopbap (we are in duck-country after all…). A bed of purple rice topped with a mélange of veggies (onion, mushroom, cubes of sweet potato), slathered in a bright orange Korean curry sauce. Thin slices of grilled duck breast come fanned out over the top, dusted with some crunchy seaweed, and white and black sesame seeds. While I appreciate the versatility of the Bibibap kitchen and their attempts to tackle yet another protein on their already very diverse menu, this duck was unfortunately very overcooked and tough to eat. I suspect it was prepared the same way as their bulgogi beef, resulting in a very beef-like texture, but on duck this means chewy, hard, dry and flavorless. The curry was there to add a punch of flavor back to the dish and was quite a cozy blanket over the usual rice base, but nothing I couldn’t make a better version of at home. This one was a no-go for me.

While their curry chicken creation was somewhat of a let-down, their seasonal Dak Gangjung à Truffe was divine. This dish is a remix of their Dak Gangjung side, but the chicken comes on a bed of greens and is topped with a very indulgent truffle-and-cheese sauce, made in house. Importantly, the chicken is not glazed with the usual sweet sauce, but left crunchy after a quick fry, allowing it to fully take on the flavor of the deliciously smoky, earthy, mushroomy cream sauce. The dish is topped with thin slices of pickled beetroot (as in the regular dak gangjung), but there are also very thinly sliced pickled radish (Mumu, is that you?) whose additional funk and pungent acidity balance the rich sauce beautifully. Affectionately nicknamed “le truc aux truffes“, this holiday special is a favorite of at least two of us at the office, and we’re seriously considering voicing a demand to make it a regular.

On what was possibly the coldest day of the year so far I ordered Bibibap’s Mochi glacés dessert. Two frosty little lumps of creamy ice cream are stuffed into two elastic glutinous rice dough pockets painted a charming pink and green. The search for a COVID-friendly space to eat our lunch took some time on this day, and the proximity of the mochi to the hot takeout resulted in these sweet little things thawing out perfectly. The glutinous rice case loosened, becoming elastic and sticky, separating from the creamy, cool filling, which melted perfectly on my tongue. The mochi were quartered into wedges easy to grab with chopsticks, and held a lovely texture. The flavor was nice too: cherry blossom for the pink and matcha for the green. I preferred the matcha, as it was slightly less sweet. 

Dang Geun Keikeu is « carrot cake » in Korean and Bibibap’s version is pretty traditional. A moist block of carrot cake, which I suspect was prepared with some crushed walnuts added to the dough, is topped with a rather rigid and thick cream cheese frosting. A bright yellow coulis of yuzu (and peach?) is poured over the top, as well as some fresh blueberries and raspberries for garnish. As far as carrot cakes go, this one wasn’t bad at all. The frosting could have been slightly softer and frothier, but the flavor was just right. A good take on a classic.

So there you have it: my take on 19 dishes at Bibibap La Boca. In a month I’ve spent growing more and more listless and apathetic, this bright and shiny food added a hint of pizzaz to my life. I recommend their menu to those looking for a colorful alternative to the humdrum soup-salad-sandwich routine, a taste of Korean street food just a quick walk or Ubereats away.

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