Eating at Korean Barbecue Restaurants - A Detailed Guide
How Not to Embarrass Yourself at a K-BBQ Restaurant
First, a few things to keep in mind about Korean barbecue restaurants:
- The meat is brought to your table raw and you cook it yourself on the grill. Not to worry if you're a novice in the kitchen: grilling pre-marinated meat is fairly straightforward, and the servers usually start you off. They will probably come by more often if you look like you don't know what you're doing.
- Look for a bell. If you need a server, ring the bell because they are not likely to come by to check up on how you're doing. They are not trying to be rude by ignoring you. By Korean cultural standards, it is actually considered rude for servers to bother the customers unless the customers have explicitly called for their attention. So look for a bell on your table and use it when you need things. If there is no bell, don't be afraid to bellow out in a firm voice "Excuse me!" or "Yuh-gee-yoh!"
- Service is "Asian-style" meaning you do not get one server assigned to your table. This is actually a great system, it means you can ask (bellow at) any passing server for water, more meat, extra salad, etc.
- Know whether you are at an all-you-can-eat joint (AYCE) or not. If you did not do this research before leaving, simply take a good look at the menu. If the menu is only in Korean then 1) rejoice for you are in for a truly authentic Korean barbecue experience, and 2) ask a server if the restaurant has AYCE options. If this is your first time, it might be best to try the AYCE as they usually the most popular meats, like galbi (beef rib), chadol (brisket), samgyupsal (pork belly).
- Chicken is for non-Koreans. Really. If you don't care about raised eyebrows or looking completely ignorant of Korean customs, then by all means, order the chicken. If you're Korean-bred and order the chicken to annoy your parents or because you're on a white-meat diet (same thing), then why are you reading this article?
- If eating at an AYCE K-BBQ restaurant, it is perfectly respectable to order as much and as wide a variety of meats as you like (with the exception of chicken, see above). Just don't order more than you can eat, or they will usually charge a fee.
A general rule of thumb for the order in which they are brought out are: non-marinated, marinated, seafood.
- Galbi. Galbi is marinated rib meat cut into thin slices. (Occasionally they do it home-style, where the meat is crosscut against the ribs, so that you have a long slab of meat with three big slivers of the rib bone.) This is probably the most popular item, in fact, when Koreans say they are going out for Korean barbecue, they actually say, "let's go out for galbi.
- Seng Galbi. This is non-marinated rib meat.
- Chadol. This is very thinly sliced non-marinated brisket. It cooks very quickly and you should put it on the grill first if the server doesn't do it for you.
- Samgyupsal. Pork belly. Contrary to some people's beliefs, samgyupsal is an absolutely valid choice at Korean barbecue. It's just that places that specialize in samgyupsal are separate from the places that specialize in galbi. Koreans in Korea will often specify, "let's go out for galbi" or "let's go out for samgyupsal."
Those are the main meats you will on the menu, occasionally you will see options for octopus, squid, shrimp, and tongue (of beef, slightly chewy and non-marinated). Feel free to branch out from the usual (unless it's chicken), especially if these offerings are on the AYCE menu. If you don't know if you will like something, let the server know that you just want a little bit to try.
Also, occasionally you will see bulgogi (marinated beef) or dweji bulgogi (spicy marinated pork) on the meat menu as well. Now I love me some dweji bulgogi, but ordering bulgogi at a K-BBQ restaurant is like ordering a cheeseburger at a fancy restaurant. People do it, but only because they have picky children. If you're dying of curiosity then you should try ordering it at a Korean diner where it would be more appropriate.
You may be wondering why you would bother to go to a restaurant only to cook the food yourself, when you can just do it at home and save yourself the money. Well, you have a good point, but we'll save that topic for another article. But the reason most people go to Korean barbecue restaurants is for the whole experience, including the meat parade and all its accompaniments. No Korean barbecue experience is complete without the following:
- Panchan. You will notice that as soon as you order, or even before, that the server will bring you various little side dishes that you didn't order. These are called panchan, and they are free. They will usually include a couple kimchi dishes, potato salad, bean sprouts, sautéed vegetables, and whatever is in season. Halfway through or towards the end, you will get an egg dish and soup. Feel free to eat all these dishes and ask for more of what you empty. Panchan is always free and AYCE.
- Sauces. There are usually four sauces: a salt and sesame oil mixture; a sweet soy mixture; dwenjang, a fermented soybean paste mixture (do not call it miso); and some type of red hot sauce. The salt and sesame oil is for non-marinated meats like chadol and samgyupsal; the sweet soy mixture is for marinated galbi; the soybean paste is for anything but especially to top a lettuce or rice bundle, along with some of the garlic and jalapeno it is usually accompanied by; and the hot sauce is for anything as well.
- Salad or Lettuce. If there is salad, it is there to be eaten with the meat. Full leaves of lettuce usually accompany samgyupsal: you use these to wrap your meat. First, take a cooked piece of samgyupsal and dip it is in the sesame oil and salt mixture. Place it on a piece of lettuce. Next take a jalapeno slice, dip it in the dwenjang and put that on top of the meat. (Unless you can't take the heat, in which case, skip the jalapeno and top your meat with a little dwenjang). Then add some roasted garlic and wrap the lettuce so that you have a little bundle of joy, only the kind you devour and enjoy instead of birthing and paying for for the rest of your life. (Just kidding, children are great.)
Also try eating the meat with kimchi. Non-marinated meats go especially well with grilled kimchi.
The following are not necessary but may (and sometimes not) enhance your meal.
A Los Angeles innovation, rice wrappers are an alternative to lettuce wraps and are especially delicious with galbi. It's not offered at every K-BBQ joint, but when it is, it should be free and you can ask for as much as you want.
Koreans don't order rice when they go out to eat galbi, unless it's at the very end of the meal. If you do order rice, be prepared to be laughed at. I've actually seen this happen. (It was genteel, motherly laughter but laughter nonetheless.) If you do order it, it's usually but not always free.
A rice liquor similar in taste to vodka but not as strong. Beware. People tend to drink soju like water and it WILL sneak up on you. Definitely not free although included in combos at some places.
Try a Korean brand like Hite (pronounced "height") or OB (like the letters O-B). These bottles are usually extra large, so if you only want one beer then ask for a domestic brand or split it with a friend.
A popular accompaniment to meat is naeng-myun. These chewy noodles come in an icy slightly salty broth (mul-naeng-myun), or my favorite, in a spicy sauce (bibim naeng-myun). Keep in mind that these noodles need to be ordered separately and are never part of the AYCE menu. They are also meant to be eaten at the end of your meal, so don't think that the servers are forgetting about you if they don't bring this to you with your meat.
If you want the naeng-myun with your meat, as I often do, just make sure you let them know. And be prepared to brave their (genteel, motherly) laughter. After all, sometimes it's worth embarrassing yourself a little to get exactly what you want.
- Do Re Mi House Korean Restaurant in Kearny Mesa, San Diego, CaliforniaReview of a good, little Korean barbeque eatery in Kearny Mesa/Clairemont Mesa area of San Diego, California.
- A Review of the Seoul Country Korean Restaurant in Banff, CanadaKorean food isn't what you imagine when you think of Banff, but the Seoul Country Korean Restaurant has been around for thirty years, so they must be doing something right. Read my review to find out what it is.
- Etiquette tips for K-BBQ dining.
- Learn what meats are paired with which sauces.
- How to get a server's attention at a K-BBQ restaurant.