HOW TO OPTIMIZE YOUR K-TOWN BARBECUE EXPERIENCE
These master-class tips from Korean BBQ pitmaster Frank Lee will have you grilling tabletop like a pro. (Not included below, but worth considering: wear clothes that you won't mind wholly suffusing with the smell of meat.)
- •Look for a place that uses a high-quality grill.A lot of KBBQ spots cheap out with thin grills that don't spread the heat from the flame and need to be swapped out frequently. A well-run place has even, well-seasoned grills that can accommodate up to five or six diners and plenty of pounds of meat throughout a meal without needing to be replaced.
- •Pay attention to the heat source, and know how it affects the meat.Most places use gas grills, but some use charcoal, which adds a rich, smoky flavor to meats. Lee thinks that most places don't know how to use their charcoal in the right way, but some top spots like Kang Ho Dong Baek Jeong (in New York and LA) get it right.
- •Make sure the meat is fresh, not frozen.When you walk into a Korean barbecue spot, first make sure the meat is fresh versus frozen. Even if it's previously frozen, the meat should at least be thawed out when presented at the table.
- •Banchan are important, but don’t fill up on them.Banchan — the array of small plates and bowls of pickles and other snacks that clutter your table at a Korean restaurant — aren't merely appetizers, they should be enjoyed throughout your meal. Eat them on their own or add them to your lettuce wraps. If you're feeling fancy, cabbage kimchi can be thrown onto the grill for extra flavor.
- •Ask for slivers of garlic and jalapeno, as well as extra salad.These all make a great counterpoint to the rich, salty meat: either in wraps, or right on the grill. Some places will even give you an aluminum foil cup filled with garlic and sesame oil to throw on the grill. Nothing like garlic confit to throw into a bite of grilled meat.
- •Make sure the grill is hot enough before you start.It's best to let the grill heat up for a few minutes - if you can't keep your hand three inches above the grill for three seconds, it's ready to roll.
- •The order of your meats matters. Start with thin-sliced, unmarinated cuts.Lee likes to start a meal with beef tongue, a thinly sliced, flavorful cut that has a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Tongue meat is superior to brisket (chadelbaegi), but it’s also more expensive. If you're on a budget, go for brisket.
- •Cook the thinner meats medium to medium rare.That way, they’ll stay juicy and chewy — they toughen up quickly, so overcoming is the kiss of death.
- •Cut the meat at the right time.A great Korean barbecue has sharp scissors. Cut meat as it starts to brown so that it cooks more evenly and quickly.
- •Wrap each bite of meat before eating.Traditionally, Korean BBQ meats are wrapped in cool vegetables, like fresh lettuce leaves and silver-dollar-sized petals of pickled daikon radish. However, barbecue in Koreatown really took off with the advent of dduk bossam, a paper-thin rice-based wrapper that is actually Southeast Asian in origin. The late Shik Do Rak on the corner of Hoover and Olympic in LA supposedly introduced dduk bossam as a barbecue side, before it proliferated to other barbecue joints (and eventually back to Korea!)
- •Work your way up to larger, marinated meats after the first order.The jumuluk (or lightly marinated short rib) and pork belly, also called ssam gyup sal are both solid, mid-meal cuts. They're fatty (which means they're flavorful) so a little bit goes a long way.
- •Cook pork belly slowly.Lee likes to take a slower approach, allowing the fat to render slightly out before cranking up the heat to sear the outside, creating a crisp-juicy piece of perfect pork belly.
- •Close out with the heavy meats.To end the meal, Lee likes big, hearty cuts like pork ribs or shoulder.
- •Beer is good, soju is better.Refreshing, clean, and just the right palate cleanser, soju is the ideal pick for the AYCE Korean barbecue fan. Beer is a solid selection that's probably more popular in America, but the stomach-filling quality of suds makes soju the pro choice.
- •Ask for everything from the servers at once.Don’t harp the busy runners with things piecemeal. Take account of all the banchan that needs to be restored (they get free refills too), all the drinks that need replenishing, and any additional meats for the table, taking care not to over order on the meat side.
- •Finish the meal with a cup of soup.The salty daen-jang chigae, or fermented soybean soup, or perhaps a refreshing mini-bowl of naeng-myun or cold buckwheat noodle soup. And if there's still stomach space? Hit a Korean shaved ice spot, if there's one nearby.
- •Ask for kkaenip.Also known as perilla leaf. Use it as a wrap.Suggested by @danny