Monday, July 15, 2024

The Restaurants Behind Korean Barbecue’s Exciting Next Wave

At the Michelin-starred Korean restaurant Cote, diners load the familiar Korean barbecue tabletop grills with galbi and skirt steak, yes, but also USDA Prime cuts and A5 wagyu meats. Banchan and scallion salad are paired with shrimp cocktails served alongside gochujang cocktail sauce; wedge salads arrive with sesame dressing; caviar service not only arrives, but with a whopping price tag to boot. When the restaurant opened in New York City in 2017, it was one of the first to blend Korean barbecue with a classic American steakhouse concept, and it is often credited with pioneering the trend of “elevated” Korean barbecue in the U.S.

“I wanted to make sure all of my core memories and feelings — from eating Korean barbecue with my dad in Seoul as a kid to discovering the American steakhouse once I moved to the U.S. — were represented at Cote,” owner Simon Kim says. “We are not trying to be the most authentic Korean barbecue restaurant. That can only be found in Korea. We are paving our own path.”

As familiarity with Korean cuisine expands in the U.S., a cadre of chefs around the country are reenvisioning Korean barbecue, putting their spin on one of the most beloved Korean dining experiences. In addition to Cote, which has locations in New York City and Miami, there’s Michelin-starred San Ho Wan in San Francisco by fine dining dynamo Corey Lee, extravagant Korean barbecue spot AB Steak in Los Angeles by global restaurateur Akira Back, and Portland-based Peter Cho’s whole-animal butchery restaurant, Jeju.

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“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Cho says. “But there’s definitely a growing interest in doing Korean barbecue differently with a focus on the quality of ingredients. With Jeju, we are really trying to offer a more nuanced experience with quality that is unmatched and almost magical.”

As ubiquitous as Korean barbecue is in the U.S. today, the experience wasn’t always so accessible. In Korea, it was once reserved for royalty, beginning in the Goguryeo era (37 BCE to 668 CE). Over several hundred years, the concept evolved from skewered meat to thinly sliced marinated beef cuts known as bulgogi, which translates to “fire meat,” and was increasingly commercialized in Korea during the Korean War, when the U.S. military brought over new grilling equipment and slicing techniques. When an influx of Korean barbecue spots began opening up in Korea during the late 20th century, restaurateurs turned their attention to quantity and affordability to stay competitive. Thus, all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue was born. It quickly shot up in popularity, drawing in daily crowds of customers looking to enjoy limitless cuts of meat for a flat fee.

Man wearing mask and chef’s apron stands at a grill.

Chef Jeong-In Hwang at the grill at San Ho Won in 2021.
Eric Wolfinger/Eater SF

View of an angular light wood bar with two diners sitting at the corner. Behind it is an open dining room.

The chef’s counter and dining room at San Ho Won.
Patricia Chang/Eater SF

Between the 1970s to 1990s, the U.S. saw a major increase in Korean immigration. When Korean food washed up on U.S. shores during the “Hallyu,” or the “Korean Wave” of pop culture in the early 2000s, Korean barbecue led the charge. Soon after, prominent all-you-can-eat chains like Gen Korean BBQ proved that diners in America also loved mass quantities of grilled meat that wouldn’t break the bank. Though the concept initially catered toward the Korean diaspora with commonplace meat cuts from Korea and accompaniments like classic stews, these all-you-can-eat joints found solid footing and appeal among non-Koreans, and the definition of Korean barbecue soon transcended beyond endless slabs of meat. It embodied a phenomenon that calls to mind a convivial experience with tabletop grills, smoke-filled air, alcoholic beverages like soju and beer, and loads of side dishes known as banchan. Korean barbecue became associated with abundance.

Now, we’re in a second wave of Korean cuisine, evident through the popularization of Korean street food including tteokbokki and fried chicken, specialty stews like soondubu, and even more esoteric fare such as ancient Korean recipes adapted for a modern fine dining restaurant, as in Suragan in San Francisco (which announced its temporary closure in August 2023). And in recent years, there’s been a reconsidering of Korean barbecue, with some Korean Americans giving it more meticulous treatment through experiences that represent a stark contrast to the typically rowdy and hefty feast.

In San Ho Wan’s minimalist space, Corey Lee and partner Jeong-In Hwang take the cooking out of diners’ hands: Instead, chefs grill meats over a central grill fired by solid lychee wood charcoal. Korean barbecue, Lee, says, is “delicious and approachable, but almost never handled with the required attention or skill with the cooking usually done by waitstaff or customers themselves.” Instead of using the familiar grills at the table, the central grill “burns a lot hotter, cooks very clean, and has that signature smoky flavor that can only come when cooking something over live fire.”

In a departure from many Korean barbecue spots that boast more than 20 cuts of meat, Lee and his team prioritized a keenly selected range of cuts based on texture, fattiness, and richness, as opposed to just the familiar fan favorites like bulgogi or beef brisket: San Ho Won offers only six cuts on the menu in addition to a few specials. The beloved double-cut galbi is distinctly thicker and more tender than regular marinated short rib cuts, as it’s braised before grilled. Other cuts include rib cartilage and the jebi churi, or beef neck filet, a special cut that is usually not served outside of Korea. All of this attention to detail comes at a price: The set meal with grilled meats, banchan, other sides, and dessert is $110 a person.

Cote takes a similar approach in the simplicity of its food menu, so with that in mind, Kim knew he wanted to implement a more robust beverage program. A $110 wine pairing — with pours from Bordeaux, Tuscany, Corsica, Switzerland, and Alto Piemonte — can be added into the restaurant’s $225 steak omakase. “We introduced an unexpected pairing: wine with Korean flavors,” Kim says. “People thought we were crazy for putting those two things together. [But now], the wine list is what usually surprises and impresses our guests the most.”

In Los Angeles, chef Akira Back also aimed to bring a twist to the Korean steakhouse concept. When he initially opened AB Steak in Los Angeles right before the pandemic shutdowns in 2020, it offered a more Westernized approach, with bread and cheese on the menu. But the current version of AB Steak, which bills itself as “modern Korean barbecue,” is unapologetically Korean — albeit with luxe add-ons like truffle shavings and dishes like the “Fantastic 4,” a bite-size stack of A5 Japanese wagyu, uni, truffle, and caviar.

Back says AB Steak’s location in Beverly Hills compelled him to take on a swankier version in line with the rest of his fine dining portfolio, which includes Akira Back, his eponymous modern Japanese restaurant with locations in Dubai and Dallas, Marrakech, and (soon) Montana. “It’s been very cool to see the diverse clientele of AB Steak,” says Back. “We’ve had K-pop stars come by, but we’ve also had a lot of foreigners and travelers and diverse crowds. The people who visit AB Steak are excited about the quality of the meat we are serving, and we also put a lot of focus on the thoughtful presentation of our food.”

Even though the addition of classic upsell ingredients like truffle and uni marks a clear departure from what most diners may expect with Korean barbecue, Back says this next-generation approach has an audience: mostly, younger diners who are willing to spend a buck on novel dining experiences.

Like Cote, AB Steak serves cuts of dry-aged meat for its tabletop grills, but its choice of meat takes inspiration from Korean hanwoo beef, one of the world’s top-quality meats that is a staple at high-end Korean barbecue restaurants and is often characterized as a combination of wagyu and American Angus. Though hanwoo is rarely exported outside of Korea, AB Steak leverages Australian wagyu as a comparable option, as it’s not as beefy as American steak or as fatty as Japanese wagyu.

“Because I lived in Korea until I was a teenager, I’d like to think I have some of that ‘old school’ Korean mentality,” Back says. “There are a few restaurants in Korea that I still love and visit again and again, but a lot of the flavors in Korea have changed over the years. I really try to bring back and mimic the flavors of some of my favorite dishes I ate growing up in Korea. In the end, I want my restaurants to be an extension of myself. I don’t think I’m doing anything crazy when it comes down to it.”

Cuts of meat hang from hooks inside a glass case.

The butcher case at Jeju.
Celeste Noche/Eater

Meat and whole fish hang inside a glass case.

Celeste Noche/Eater

Portland’s Jeju, where Korean barbecue meets Portland’s whole-animal butchery ethos, also offers no tabletop grills. Instead, chefs prepare a wide array of meats on a central wood-fire hearth. The carcasses aging in the glass case near the back of the restaurant dictate the cuts of the day — perhaps rib-eye one day, or slices of soondae (blood sausage) another. The set menu at Jeju, the third restaurant by Peter Cho and his wife and business partner Sun Young Park that opened this summer, is streamlined and served in an airy, wood-beamed space.

Before Cho opened his first restaurant Han Oak in 2016, he had envisioned a Korean barbecue concept, but he never found quite the right space for it. He finally chose the former home of an Italian restaurant that featured a five-foot hearth and pizza oven; Cho has repurposed it for his rendition of Korean barbecue. The adaptation of the existing space to a new cooking style is emblematic of how Korean American chefs are adapting familiar cuisines for new contexts, ultimately diversifying the clientele for Korean barbecue.

“It’s interesting to think about redefining Korean barbecue,” Cho says. “Because of the whole-animal program that we are building on, it’s a bit hard to define.” It’s not American barbecue with Korean flavors, nor is it straightforward Korean barbecue, “but we are just doing what feels right to us and what we would want to eat.”

Cathy Park is a freelance food writer based in California.

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