Korean BBQ is taking the country by storm, one smokey, garlic-y grill at a time. Whether you're a kalbi-crushing aficionado or a rookie just getting your feet wet, here's the lowdown. And tips to make you look like you know what you're doing.
What to Expect
The Korean BBQ experience is far different from other types of "BBQ" (Southern, backyard etc). The star of the show is the meat -- different types, cuts, marinated vs non-marinated -- that is cooked table-side, right in front of your face. If you have yet to try it, call up some friends and pick a place -- you're in for a culinary treat. Note: wear clothes you don't mind reeking of smoke afterwards.
1. How to order
First select the type of meat (moo, oink, cock-a-doodle-doo, quack quack). It's a good idea to start with non-marinated cuts first, then move on to their richer, marinated brethren. For beginners, you can't go wrong with the blue chips -- samgyupsal (pork belly) or marinated kalbi (rib eye).
In most joints, you order based on the number of people. 4 people = 4 orders of meat (which you can split into two samgyupsal, two kalbi).
PRO TIP: If you're looking for the true Korean experience, order a hearty stew or noodle dish for after the meal. Doenjang chigae (miso-based stew with vegetables) or bibim naengmyun (spicy, cold buckwheat noodles) are sure fire bets. Think of the meat as the 1st course and the entrees as a 2nd course to fill you up. You can order a few to share. Throw in a side of rice as well, since it's usually not included. Lastly, pair it with a bottle of the green stuff (soju) or light and refreshing Korean lagers and you are good to go.
2. Fill up on banchan
Now that the hard work is out of the way, you can enjoy the fruit (err veggies) of your labor. The server will assemble an army of small plates at your table. The banchan (share plates) are different at every restaurant, but you can usually find pickled or lightly seasoned vegetables, assorted kimchi and small seafood or meat dishes. Dig in, because it's all free (included with the meal) and you get unlimited refills (YMMV).
3. Hurry up and wait
At most respectable KBBQ spots, a server will come to your table and operate the grill (do the dirty work). Don't expect hibachi style theatrics. Their job is to cook the meat to temp, flip it (just enough) and give you the green light. You'll be lucky if you can crack a smile out of 'em :). As you wait, knock back a few shots of soju and commemorate with your fellow diners (keep the iPhones in your pockets people).
4. Game time
After your server gives you the thumbs up, it's time to dig in! For your first bites of meat, we recommend transporting the meat (with your burgeoning chopsticks skills), and lightly dipping it into the sauce on your table. The most common sauce is called ssamjang, a combination of miso, gochuchang (red chili paste), garlic, vinegar and sugar. You might also see a sesame oil sauce or salt and pepper. Sampling the goods with minimal sauce lets you experience the pure, ephemeral essence of the meat. Blabbety blah blah. Once you're ready to crank up the flavors, assemble your first Ssam-bomb.
5. Enter the Ssam-bomb
To build a Ssam-bomb (we made up the term but its really what every Korean does), take a leaf of lettuce (ssam). Break it in half so it's about the size of your palm. Place the leaf in one hand, then using your other hand, put one piece of meat on top of the lettuce. Then layer on some grilled garlic, seasoned scallion and the ssamjang sauce. Lastly, wrap the leaf into a little ball, and pop it in your mouth. Don't be a wuss, and finish it in one bite.
6. Max out on entrees
If you ordered entrees, they will hit your table about halfway through your meat-a-palooza. Take down the stews, noodles or rice dishes while you chip away at the meat on the grill. Just a note, many Korean dishes are served family style so when sharing stews, its proper etiquette to make sure your spoon or chopsticks are completely clean before hitting the communal bowls.
PRO TIP: If you order marinated kalbi and naengmyun, wrap a piece of kalbi in naengmyun for a sweet, salty, hot and cold umami tsunami.
7. Close out and make room for dessert (optional)
Even after a heavy and hearty meal, many Koreans will go to a nearby cafe for coffee & dessert or local bar for round 2. It doesn't matter if you're bursting at the seams -- meals and nights out are just as much about hanging with your friends & fam as they are about the eats. Typical dessert orders include pat bing soo (shaved ice with red bean) or assorted Korean pastries. After dessert, think about good spots for a round 3. The rest we'll leave to you.
We hope you enjoyed this culinary journey via the interwebs. This particular KBBQ adventure took place at one of our favorite restaurants, Hahm Ji Bach in Flushing, Queens. For a full list of great KBBQ spots in New York, check out our Top 10 Korean BBQ Joints in NYC.
Words and photos by Arthur Shim.