Why You Should Try Korean BBQ

BY: Aimee Algas Alker |Jul 18, 2016

Korean BBQ Grill

Unlike sushi or Thai food, Korean BBQ has not quite hit the mainstream yet. But the DIY dining style has been quietly rising in popularity for the last decade.

Diners at KBBQ restaurants usually grill their own tender, marinated meats on a small tabletop grill, making each meal entertainingly interactive. Recently, though, the traditional cuisine has gotten a boost simply by changing the cooking surface.

If you haven’t already, here are six reasons why you must dig into some Korean BBQ.

It’s a royal meal.

In ancient Korea, the thinly sliced, soy-marinated beef known as bulgogi was a delicacy restricted to the wealthy and noble class. Now a staple of Korean-barbecue menus, its umami richness still makes it a dish fit for a king.

You can eat all the traditional Korean vegetables you want.

“[Koreans] eat a lot of vegetables,” said Felicia Park, owner of New York’s Han Joo. The little cold plates, called banchan, that accompany barbecue entrees are filled with mostly Korean vegetable-based dishes and condiments such as fermented cabbage (kimchi), cold-boiled bean sprouts (kongnamul), and seasoned spinach.

Though people often dig in as soon as the myriad little plates hit the table, banchan are actually side-condiment hybrids meant to be savored alongside your meal. As a bonus, they’re also usually bottomless, so they’ll be refilled when they run low.

Korean Restaurants Shop

Also, all the meats.

The original proteins are bulgogi and kalbi, both thin-sliced, marinated beef, which cook quickly on the grill. At New York’s upscale Kristalbelli, servers add dry-aged rib eye and wagyu filet mignon to the repertoire.

You might also find seafood on the menu, like the whole squid at Han Joo or the baby octopusat Chicago’s San Soo Gab San. Though Han Joo’s Park often chooses duck for her meals, she readily acknowledges her love for pork belly; her restaurant maintains a selection of no fewer than seven different variations, marinated in bean paste, green tea, or garlic.

Korean BBQ is a fully customizable meal.

At most Korean BBQ restaurants, “any way you like it” doesn’t stop at grilling your own meats. Once diners take a cooked morsel off the grill, they can add rice, soybean paste, chili sauce, or whatever catches their eye. All that gets piled on top of a lettuce or cabbage leaf, making a little lettuce wrap known as a ssam. According to Yura Cho of Kristalbelli, you can also try adding different banchan to the ssam for a kaleidoscope of flavor combinations.

Korean BBQ Bowl

You can experiment.

Throw the banchan on the grill, brush some chili sauce on a slice of bulgogi before cooking it—just about anything goes. At Kristalbelli, Cho highly recommends grilling the kimchi with pork belly, so that as it cooks, the pork’s runoff soaks in and adds flavor to the cabbage mix. However, this isn’t possible on most traditional Korean grills because the drippings would fall through the grates. Thankfully, that problem is solved by the next item on this list …

The crystal grill.

The crystal grill is what some chefs are banking on to finally bring KBBQ to the forefront—according to both Park and Cho. Park has been showcasing her restaurant’s crystal grills for nine years; Kristalbelli’s Buddha-belly grills stepped onto the scene in 2012. Both were custom-designed and shipped straight from Korea.

“The grill takes just 10 minutes to heat up, and it cooks two to three times faster,” Cho said. The even cooking surface and higher heat also give meat a nice sear and—as mentioned above—ensure that nothing placed on the grill falls to the fire beneath.