Korean BBQ is a many-splendored thing: interactive group activity. Late-night rocket fuel. Provider of enough soju to get you to willingly belt out "One Way or Another" at karaoke. These are all entirely legitimate reasons to trundle up to Manhattan's K-Town.
But now you're going to 32nd Street to do all of those things, while also eating the kind of meat that's usually associated with big-ticket steakhouses—a welcome change from the all-too-common turn-and-burn formula pervading many K-Town standbys.
"We want to showcase our meat in its purest form," says Deuki Hong, a Jean-Georges vet and chef at the newly opened Manhattan branch of Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, a wildly popular Korean franchise with locations in L.A. and Flushing. That means no overly sweet sauces or marinades, no cheap cuts and no haphazard DIY grill mishaps. What it does mean is carefully considered seasonings, surprising parts (when was the last time you saw pork jowl on a Korean BBQ menu?) and an attentive staff who cook and pace your meats from "lightest" (relatively speaking) to most palate bombing.
Slicing short rib, lunch box, Chef Deuki Hong | Photos: Dave Katz/Tasting Table
Yes, there are banchan, the small dishes that arrive in advance of the main event; here they're limited in quantity and atypical, like a wedge of kabocha squash with pumpkin seeds or soft tofu with a chile-sesame dressing. There are appetizers and side dishes including a crisp, bouncy seafood pancake ($13) and a throwback snack called the lunch box ($8), a literal retro tin lunch box containing rice, roast kimchi, fish cakes, black beans, toasted anchovy, nori and a soft-cooked egg that will be vigorously shaken and presented to you tableside.
But really, Kang Ho Dong (the Korean wrestler-turned-comedian-turned-prolific talk show host who is the namesake of the chain) Baekjeong ("butchery") is about the meat. Hong wet-ages his Greater Omaha-sourced beef for three weeks and deploys different treatments for each cut, strategically seasoning and marinating to elicit the maximum level of unadulterated animal flavor.
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Thinly sliced, ruby red brisket ($24) is left au naturel, grilled first and dipped into a wasabi-laced soy and apple vinegar sauce to whet the palate for the more deeply seasoned meats to come. Next are thick slabs of boneless short rib ($36), so marbled a cardiologist would have a conniption, brushed lightly with sesame oil, garlic and black pepper.
The staff are trained to save the marinated meats for last, lest their aggressive flavor blow out your taste buds, so the burden is on you to save room for the off-menu galbi ($33), a hulking slab of short rib marinated in soy sauce, garlic, ginger and the juice of Asian pears and apples. ("That one is a real labor of love," Hong says. "It takes three days to make.")
Banchan, thinly sliced brisket | Photos: Dave Katz/Tasting Table
Should you dig on swine, spring for thin strips of jowl ($25), which has a pleasantly chewy texture that pairs particularly well with the rounds of lime and beet juice-marinated daikon radish. Or try the marinated pork collar ($23), which needs, if anything, only a sprinkle of flaky finishing salt. "We don't serve ssamjang," (a thick, spicy bean paste typically served with Korean barbecue) Hong says, "because we don't want any flavors to overshadow the meat."
It could be Hong's obsession with the purity of his product that's drawing huge crowds to the restaurant, or it could be Baekjeong's reputation in other cities. Heck, it might be the Day-Glo-hued melon soju punch, but we're not counting on it. To pinpoint why exactly the restaurant has regular hour-long waits is beside the point; what matters is knowing you now have a prime-cut reason to spend the night in K-Town.