Korean BBQ is one of the best things to eat in the world. Seriously, don’t fight me on this. Barbecue in general is delicious, but Koreans take it to the next level.
As Korean BBQ has started to gain more popularity, you can generally find it in most major cities throughout the world now. Although, the further you are from Korea the more sparse and expensive it becomes, and generally the presentation and the quality of the meat differs from the original.
The best place to get Korean BBQ is in Korea, obviously, and in LA, where Koreatown reigns supreme in multitudes of family owned storefronts. You’ll know you’ve hit authentic barbecue when you walk in and see charcoal or gas grills built into the tables, tables filled with banchan (side dishes), and fridges filled with soju.
In Seoul, most barbecue places I ate at had charcoal grills and menus filled with different varieties of meat. The most popular of which were Samgyeopsal, pork belly cut into thick strips, then Bulgogi, very thin slices of marinated beef, and finally Galbi, which are beef short ribs that can be pricier than the others due to the high quality of meat. But they also had seasoned chicken, sometimes duck, and stranger cuts of meat like pork cheek and pork skin, the latter of which was a favorite of my friend who liked its crispness and salty flavor.
Most places I ate at had you buy the meat in advance, where the cost for a meat platter and a soju would be roughly 10,000 won at a cheap place, so buying more than one meat platter wasn’t going to break my bank. But there are also many all-you-can-eat places, a favorite for drunk Koreans who are heading to the clubs and equally drunk businessmen who put back more soju than barbecue. At these places the price was usually 20,000 won, a little less than $20 American dollars. The meat here was cheaper, more fatty, and cut thinner, with fewer options in meat variety, but you could sit and eat as much as you wanted.
Meat is just one part of Korean BBQ, the others are banchan and drinks. Banchan are unlimited Korean side-dishes that are offered for free in Korea, but in other countries they might make you pay for a refill. Banchan surrounds the grill in separate little dishes, including rice, soup, kimchi, a variety of pickled vegetables, bean sprouts, garlic, mushrooms, fish cakes, glass noodles, Korean potato salad, and more. You’re meant to pick up your meat with your chopsticks, put it in a provided lettuce leaf wrap (also free and unlimited), add your banchan, then add ssamjang, a spicy sauce made of soybean paste, chili paste, and other minced vegetables. Since doing this in Korea, I eat all my meat at home like this.
The last important part of an authentic Korean BBQ experience are the drinks. More specifically, soju. Koreans like to drink, a lot, and soju is an important part of their lives. Soju is a clear grain alcohol that when consumed without flavoring, tastes like watered down vodka. It is by far the most popular and famous South Korean drink and is consumed daily by its citizens. I didn’t favor the unflavored version and instead opted for peach and grapefruit flavors, which were very pleasant and easy to drink. Soju is mainly poured in a shot glass, meant to be downed in one shot and repeated throughout the meal until more than one bottle has been consumed. If you want respect from native Koreans, know how to drink and handle your soju.
As people are starting to realize the appeal of Korean BBQ, more restaurants are popping up around the globe. So don’t be shy, pick your cut of meat, raise a shot glass of soju, and say geonbae!