Six Reasons to Try Korean BBQ
Diners at Korean BBQ 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 BBQ menus, its umami richness still makes it a dish fit for a king.
“[Koreans] eat a lot of vegetables,” said Felicia Park, owner of New York’s Han Joo. The little cold plates, called banchan, that accompany Korean BBQ entrees are filled with mostly 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.
Did we mention the meats?
The most popular proteins are bulgogi and kalbi, both dishes made with thin-sliced pieces of beef marinated in Korean BBQ sauce, 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 octopus at 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, the “any way you like it” angle isn’t limited to 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.
You can experiment.
Throw the banchan on the grill, brush some Korean BBQ 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 BBQ 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 korean BBQ grill is what some chefs are banking on to finally bring Korean BBQ 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.