If you’ve never tried Korean barbecue, you’re seriously missing out. At the most basic culinary level, it’s simply the traditional Korean method of grilling meat tableside. But as a cultural phenomenon, it’s truly all about the experience, where succulent proteins are seared off right in front of you on a screaming hot grill grate. Think of it like a more intimate hibachi experience—except in place of wild flames and flying shrimp and theatrical mouth squirts of sake—there’s an assembly line of dainty sides to explore, slippery noodles to be plucked up with chopsticks, soup to be slurped, and shots of soju (more on that, later) to be sipped, or more commonly, downed in one gulp.
We asked Esther Choi, chef and owner of mŏkbar in New York City, to give us a crash course in how to most authentically (and deliciously!) navigate Korean barbecue for ourselves. “Expect bright and bold flavors, and expect to eat a lot!” she says.
First, you have to know your meats.
The hardest part of Korean barbecue is deciding which cut of meat to order. That’s because while you’ll see traditional options like beef short ribs, flank steak, paper-thin brisket, or thick strips of pork belly, more and more restaurants are catering to the foodies and muddling the menu with a laundry list of steak cuts, chicken, and even seafood. “If you want the traditional Korean flavor experience, choose short ribs, flank steak, or bulgogi, which is thinly sliced rib eye in a sweet and spicy marinade,” advises Choi.
Keep an eye on the grill.
Most restaurants will have wait staff do the cooking for you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re grilling things off just right. “A lot of people these days cook it really, really fast and keep flipping the meat. You don’t want it all brown or gray, you want to get caramelization that a nice sear will achieve,” Choi says. That means making sure the grill is preheated (the meat should pop and sizzle as soon as it hits the grate), and they shouldn’t necessarily use the same grill top for all types of meat. “A good restaurant will change the grill depending on the type of meat. Thicker steaks should be cooked on cast iron, while short ribs are best on a wire grill so they can catch some flame and pick up that smoky flavor,” she says. If you really want to, you can usually request to do the grilling yourself.
Feel out the vibe.
An authentic barbecue spot won’t make the meal seem like a race to the finish—wait staff should cook things slowly and in stages, so you can fully taste and embrace all the flavors and dishes. “They shouldn’t be rushing you out of the restaurant to seat another party,” Choi cautions. You should also be able to ask questions about menu items or request recommendations without feeling embarrassed.
What about apps?
There are plenty of appetizers to choose from, but it’s not always smart to give in to the dizzying array, especially if you’re a barbecue newbie, says Choi. While whatever you choose—plump dumplings, pajeon (a savory pancake stuffed with veggies, meat, or seafood), or Korean fried chicken—is sure to delight, it can also be flavor and belly overload. If you do want to taste test, stick with a noodle dish or stew and share with the table (we’ll clue you in to the best of those options, below).
On to the banchan.
Banchan—the complementary lineup of vegetable side dishes that inexplicably appear right after ordering—is an underrated star of any Korean barbecue meal. Each restaurant will serve something slightly different, but you’ll most commonly find lettuce leaves to wrap around the meat, kimchi (fermented veggies, usually cabbage or daikon), spicy cucumber salad, marinated or lightly seasoned raw bean sprouts, sautéed spinach or watercress, scallion salad, and pretty much any other vegetable (broccoli, radish, even eggplant) that you can steam, boil, stir fry, or turn into a cold salad. Expect to taste sesame, spice, and some palate-tickling funk. And don’t leave any sauces untouched—you’ll frequently see little dishes of gochujang (a spicy/sweet hot sauce), ssamjang (a thick, spicy paste), sesame oil, and even slices of raw garlic or scallion—and all are meant to elevate the simple backdrop of meat.
How do you fit so many things into one bite, you ask? You don’t—the spread will tell you how it should be eaten, says Choi. “Everyone does it a little differently, so it’s really about what you want to add to each bite or what you want to taste after a mouthful of meat,” she says. “My favorite way to eat is to wrap a lettuce leaf around a piece of meat, then add a dab of ssamjang and maybe a little scallion salad. If the meat isn’t marinated, I might dip it in sesame oil with a pinch of salt.”
The best side dishes to choose.
If you want some substance to pair with your protein, you can always go with plain ol’ white rice. But to nosh like the Koreans do, expand your horizons a bit. “I love a kimchi stew toward the end of the meal. It’s a little funky and sour, so it cleans your palate and cuts through the grease from the meat,” says Choi. Plus, it usually comes with rice.
If noodles are more your thing, opt for a cold buckwheat noodle soup. “It is so refreshing. Sometimes I’ll ask for it to come out with my meat and use it instead of rice. Wrapping those cool noodles around the steaming meat is the most perfect combo ever. You have to do the cold noodles.”
Don’t forget the soju.
It’s similar in look and taste to vodka, but this popular distilled spirit is just begging to be enjoyed with food, just like wine. It should be flowing throughout the meal— and while you can sip it—it’s more fun (and traditional) to throw it back like a shot. “Every Korean barbecue experience should include some soju,” Choi says. Her favorite brand (and one she keeps stocked at her restaurants) is called Tokki, and is distilled in Brooklyn.
Finally, don’t be afraid of kimchi.
If you think kimchi should taste and smell pinch-your-nose funky, you just haven’t had good kimchi yet. Technically, any veggie can be “kimchified,” says Choi, and when made right, is just the pop of acid and freshness any meat-heavy meal needs. “Fresh, quality kimchi should look bright and attractive, and taste crunchy and delicious,” she says. “And, look for something that’s made in house.” If you’re looking for a homemade batch to try around New York City, look no further than Choi’s own restaurant, with locations in Chelsea Market and around the corner from Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Header image by Chowhound.