What’s the Difference? In the broadest of terms, Korean barbecue is marinated meat cooked on a tabletop grill. Beef rules, especially bulgogi and galbi, with pork not far behind. Banchan (see page 70) offers some punchy, pickled, and fermented balance to all the meat that’s about to hit your palate; it’s okay to ask for a refill. The dipping sauce game stays relatively simple, lest we override those marinades. Maybe some thick and spicy ssamjang, but always sesame oil piqued with salt, a simple yet bonkers-delicious combo that belongs in everyone’s home condiment rotation.
In Seattle, barbecue platters often come with a puzzling green salad—the cost-efficient alternative to Korea’s platters of leafy greens, which let you fashion your newly grilled protein into a ssam. (It’s way more expensive to source individual pre-washed lettuce leaves here than in South Korea.)
After World War II, Japan got in on the tabletop grill game. Yakiniku (which translates to “grilled meat”) reshapes Korean barbecue to suit the tastes of an island nation—you’ll usually find seafood, poultry, and vegetables in the mix. Japan’s iteration is less about marinated meat than about a robust slate of dipping sauces for after the grill.
Korean barbecue tends toward a more raucous sort of outing; yakiniku skews upscale, with individually trimmed bites, rather than a honking flap of short ribs that diners cut up with tableside scissors. Of course, a ton of great restaurants—in Seattle and beyond—challenge both those generalities.
Tips for first-timers.
- Remember to save your chopsticks for cooked meat; switch to tongs to manipulate the raw stuff.
- Servers should change out your grill whenever the surface gets charred (residual sugar from marinated meat hastens this process). If your grill’s looking busted and nobody has stepped up, flag down a server to request a grill change.
- At the risk of stating the obvious, meat cooks faster directly atop the flames, and slower if you nudge it toward the edge of the grill.
- Never be shy about asking for more banchan.
The Revolution Will Be Tableside
Heong Soon Park of Meet Korean BBQ on the evolution of
Anyone who’s ever put a slice of cheese atop their ramen—or devoured a corn dog blinged out with fried potatoes or squid ink—can attest: Korean food trends move faster than Ferris Bueller on a sick-day bender. Even classics like barbecue aren’t exempt from evolution.
Heong Soon Park ate many a cut of grilled meat in Seoul as he prepared to open his high-end Meet Korean BBQ in early 2020. Even now, in and around pandemic restrictions, he makes return visits to Korea to assess developments in the food and the service.
Visit a barbecue restaurant in the Gangnam District and you might not find the bevy of banchan that Americans are accustomed to seeing in stateside Korean restaurants. “Maybe there’s one or two, besides kimchi,” says Park—nearly all fermented or pickled to balance all that heavy meat.
As barbecue restaurants evolve from cheerful, diner-like fun to South Korea’s equivalent of America’s upscale steak houses, marinated meats are no longer the standard, he says. A pregame in some gochujang can amp up a pork collar or some short rib, but you wouldn’t want it anywhere near the dry-aged bone-in rib eye guests can order at Park’s restaurant on Pike/Pine.
This caliber of meat—not to mention the thicker cuts—has led to the biggest shift in Korean barbecue. These days, most restaurants cook the meat for you, rather than asking diners to DIY.
At Meet, Park has appointed a handful of grill assistants, himself included, as a sort of roving maître d’ ready to jump in when your table could use a fresh round of Wagyu.
Notes from a Grill Captain
- For the sake of your palate and the grill, start with leanest beef first, then move on to richer cuts. Meet’s servers grill the pork after this, ending with anything that’s marinated.
- Park’s grill captains know that thicker cuts cook faster the more you flip them: “The heat will transfer much quicker from the bottom to the top.”
- “Korean barbecue is all about sharing,” Park says. Cooking for others, passing around shared plates, and assembling your perfect lettuce leaf bite—“it’s all about this culture that we have.”
A fresh look at ventilation systems.
The owners of Korean barbecue and yakiniku restaurants were parsing the finer points of airflow long before the topic became paramount to life in our pandemic age.
A good ventilation system lets diners go about their post-prandial activities without fear of smelling like they got dressed inside a charcoal grill. “Nobody wants the smoke on their clothes anymore,” says Alysia Kang, general manager of Exit 5 in Renton. “That was one of the signatures of Korean barbecue.”
That commitment to air circulation theoretically bodes well for Covid safety. Dr. Martin Cohen—an industrial hygienist on faculty at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences—recalls a recent KBBQ outing in Federal Way: “I could sense a fair amount of fresh air in the restaurant.” But, like so many other aspects of life right now, Cohen says too many variables exist to make any grand pronouncements about this type of cuisine being safer than other restaurant outings.
Older restaurants typically have vents above the table, leaning into that whole “heat rises” aspect of thermodynamics. The newer downdraft systems keep air away from a guest’s “breathing zone,” says Cohen, but must work twice as hard to pull that rising air downward.
When Exit 5 installed a powerful version of this tabletop system, says Kang, it proved righteously complicated to fit vents, not to mention gas lines for the burners, within all 36 tables inside the cavernous dining room. But now, she says, “you leave without the smell.”
The Banchan Primer
THIS FORMATION OF TINY SIDE DISHES is hardly specific to Korean barbecue. But debating the merits of one restaurant’s banchan lineup over another’s is a chief pleasure in a meal that has many highlights.
- Geotjeori (Fresh kimchi salad)
- Musaengchae (Radish salad)
- Gaji Bokkeum (Stir-fried eggplant)
- Kimchi Always and forever
- Myulchi Bokkeum (Stir-fried peppers and anchovies
- Kongnamul-Muchim (Mung bean sprout salad
- Oi Muchim (Pickled cucumber)
- Miyeok Julgi Bokkeum (Stir-fried seaweed stems)
- Gyeran-Mari (Egg roll)
- Yuchae Namul (Chilled seasoned canola greens)
- Eomuk Bokkeum (Stir-fried fish cakes)
- Gamja Salad (Potato salad)