WITH ALL ITS gut-friendly, probiotic goodness, and its ability to turn a humble bowl of Top Ramen into a fairly nutritious meal, kimchi is one of my favorite pickled things. It's great on hot dogs or in omelets (as evidenced by the ponderous breakfast menu at the Cameo Café), and the fiery-sour juice that collects in the container is a superb secret ingredient for spiking Bloody Marys.
Sure, you could go to pretty much any grocery store and get the stuff in jars from the pickle aisle, but the kimchi made in-house at Portland's neighborhood Korean markets is so much better. Just for shits and gigs, I thought I'd test them all. My friend and kimchi expert Alicia (who was lucky enough to grow up eating her mom's killer version) helped me wade through each of them. We primarily compared traditional napa kimchi (baechu kimchi), but we tasted a few other styles, too, to get a better sense of each deli's overall approach. Here are our findings:
(Oh, it's worth noting that most kimchi contains seafood, in the form of fish sauce, anchovy extract, or shrimp, but most Korean delis don't list ingredients on their jars or tubs. Just a cautionary heads-up, if seafood isn't a part of your diet.)
Boo Han Oriental Market
1313 SE 82nd
This little store's napa kimchi, with its fresh flavor, subtle gingery tang, and ideal balance of fishiness, heat, and salt, was our favorite. This one is perfect for eating right from the jar, especially if you get salty/crunchy cravings like I do. This refreshing kimchi would be perfect with an over-medium fried egg and somen noodles for a quick, affordable meal. We had the kimchi that had been packed earlier that week, but the store sells older kimchi that has fermented longer and will have a stronger flavor. They actually have more than a half dozen varieties made in-house—but don't let the selection paralyze you. You can't go wrong with any of them.
3975 SW 114th, Beaverton
This delicious kimchi came in a very close second place, if not tying with Boo Han. It's sweet, super fresh, and not too fishy or salty, but has just a touch more heat. It finishes with a subtle and pleasant celery flavor. Their cucumber kimchi (oi-sobagi) was similarly fresh and sweet, with a clean aftertaste. I couldn't stop snacking on these two versions of kimchi straight from the container, and ended up just eating them alone with plain rice for dinner one night. The only downside (if you can call it that) is that a half-gallon is G Mart's smallest container, and you have to go out to Beaverton to get it.
6112 SE Foster
Paldo's kimchi is spicier than most, but not overpowering, and the anchovy flavors come through loud and clear. It's also a bit heavier on the scallion, and with its aggressive heat and garlic, this is a good kimchi for fried rice. I really like the slices of daikon strewn throughout—they provide a dense crunch and earthy sweetness to balance out the cabbage. Of course, you could also just go for their straight-up radish kimchi (kkakdugi) to get as much of that sweet crunch as you want. Be cautioned, though: fermented radishes smell pretty funky, and it's best for a day when you can keep the windows open.
12755 NE Whitaker
Choi's isn't actually a Korean deli, but a brand made locally, available at the PSU Farmers' Market and about a dozen independent grocery stores. Choi's kimchi, made from Chong Choi's family recipe, is a solid entry in this list, sweetened with Asian pear. It's a little fishier than the others, which can turn some people off—but that makes it a better kimchi to pair with hotdogs. Their radish kimchi has a fresher taste than the napa. I actually prefer their white kimchi—it's sweeter, and not so spicy.
13600 SW Pacific Hwy, Tigard
H Mart makes a standard, basic kimchi. It might be a testament to the volume they produce, or that they're a chain store, but this is just a nice, everyday kimchi. "Yep, it tastes like kimchi," was the overarching impression. Eat it on store-bought ramen with a few drops of sesame oil. The main reason to come to H Mart is for the sheer selection of Korean foods, and it's kind of a hike to get there—but if the Korean superstore is good enough for David Chang, it's good enough for you.