There is much to like about Mapo, the small, no-frills KBBQ joint: great bowls of naengmyeon, that icy, refreshing soup of beefy broth and buckwheat noodles straight from Korea, and a rare but beloved dish of raw crab generously coated in gochujang, the fleshy sweet meat popping out as you chomp on the shell.
But ultimately, you make the trek out to the Murray Hill section of Queens for the superb, smoky, juicy chunks of galbi, beef short rib.
"All these other restaurants have every choice of meat, but when people hear the name Mapo, I want them to think of galbi," says Mapo owner, Pak Pil Nam, of the pristine, well-seasoned hunks of short ribs.
It's been eleven years since Nam transformed a small, old Korean church on the quiet corner of 41st Avenue and 149th Street into this meaty heaven dedicated to her childhood home just outside of Seoul. "I wanted to bring my hometown here," she says.
Leave the cooking to the experts | Long buckwheat noodles in naengmyeon
But Korean barbecue is so much more than piling slabs of red meat and tubular intestines on the grill. First, there's the funky, fermented freebies and all the raw accessories (soybean paste, lettuce) for constructing your bite of galbi. And, of course, there are all the soups and noodles and plastic bottles of Yakult, the Japanese probiotic drink made of sweet fermented milk, to wash it all down.
For non-Korean first-timers, it can be a fast-moving, confusing kind of free-for-all feast.
Here's how you do Korean BBQ right:
The Order: Ordering is easy—just get the short rib ($37 per serving, which serves one very hungry person) and follow the lead of your pushy but well-meaning waitress. She'll bring over a few things: a basket of red leaf lettuce, a tiny mound of macerated onions and chopped long peppers and garlic. Don't nibble yet—save these guys for the meat.
The Snacks: A flurry of pickled palate cleansers suddenly arrives. (Good news: It's all free). These are panchan. "The meat is heavy, so you need side dishes for something a little sweet and sour," explains Jennifer, Nam's daughter, who helps out at the restaurant. You'll find the usual suspects include a bubbling crock of steamed egg, potato salad and steamed shishitos with garlic and chiles. Best are the acorn jelly with soy sauce and scallions and charred corn tossed with mayo and that raw crab.
The full Korean BBQ spread in all its glory
Grill Time: Watch out for a glowing metal tray of charcoal that will be dropped at your table's grill. Mapo's one of the few Korean barbecue joints with a license for charcoal grills (most use gas). Once the meat goes on the grill, resist the urge to move it. Let your waitress handle cooking it to charred perfection; you'll know it's ready when she cuts it up into cubes and pushes them to the outskirts of the rack.
The Assembly: That lettuce we mentioned earlier? This is where it counts. Construct your perfect galbi bite: Take a leaf of lettuce, spread on the soybean paste and sprinkle some onions, halved garlic and pepper. Take a single nub of meat, place it on the lettuce, wrap it all up and dig in. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
The Soups: "Some places give freebies if you order a lot, like beer or soda. Here they give you soup," a Mapo regular shares. There are two types of soup you're likely to get—spicy soondubu jjigae (tofu soup) if you're non-Korean, or doenjang jigae (a fragrant soybean soup) if you are. Pro tip: Be Korean or come with native speakers for this nice soupy surprise.
Now the Noodles: Mapo's naengmyeon broth is made from leftover short rib bones with chewy buckwheat noodles, brisket, hardboiled egg and slices of Asian pear ($14). It's the perfect thing to eat after stuffing yourself with hot hunks of short rib.