Table top grilling is such a treat for us, especially the type that’s done over red-hot coals, since it’s very rare to see these types of built-in grills at Korean restaurants that we’ve been to in North America. A trip is Korea is definitely not complete until one has experienced DIY table top BBQ. It’s a truly interactive meal in which people can take turns being the Grillmaster (or you know, you can decide not to and just keep eating the meat as it gets cooked… not that I have any experience in that). The great thing is, in Korea you can find DIY BBQ virtually everywhere. Just find one that’s crowded with people and you know you’ve found a good one.
Two weeks is truly not enough time to eat all the deliciousness that Korea has to offer. The fact that we ate a DIY BBQ meal 5 times on our trip means that we love ourselves some BBQ. Actually, I only participated 4 times, because of that one night on Jeju Island that I started to get sick and basically slept for an entire day while the Typhoon raged outside. I just couldn’t find the energy to drag myself out of bed, even at the prospect of BBQ meat.
I won’t necessarily be scoring these BBQ places as each has its own merits, but will present them chronologically.
1. Woo Sa Ma
First up, we have a 24-hour joint (yes, open 24 hours!) called Woo Sa Ma, just a short walk from the place we were staying in Gangnam. Their specialty is their super tender and flavourful bulgogi (불고기). Rachel and Jason actually ate at this place on their first night in Seoul (they arrived a couple of days before us) and raved about the bulgogi. They were also impressed with the service they received on their visit, as they got special treatment from one of the owners after he discovered he was serving foreigners. Special treatment means that he cooked all the meat for them at their table and gave them tons of freebies. That sounded pretty epic to us, so we knew we had to visit. It seemed like an awesome idea at the time, so we decided to go there for breakfast at around 9:00 a.m. one day. Bulgogi is the breakfast of champions.
To the surprise of no one, we were the only ones there. Actually, I think the ajummas working that morning were surprised to see us walking in to have bulgogi so early in the day. We explained that we were visiting from North America and were still jetlagged (not really), hence the early visit. She seemed to accept our reasoning.
This isn’t really a BBQ grill, but it’s still table top grilling. This interesting looking vessel is filled with broth, noodles and veggies, while the beef cooks and releases its flavourful juices into the broth. The interesting thing about this bulgogi is that the meat is so fresh and tender that you’re supposed to eat it medium-rare to medium. One of the ajummas came by several times to check on our meat and grill it for us, continually replenishing our plates with not-quite-so-cooked bulgogi. I’m more of a well-done bulgogi eater, so at first I was a bit hesitant.
With just a bit of the pickled radish, it tasted pretty amazing. It was literally melt-in-the-mouth tender, with a beautifully balanced sweet and savoury flavour. When the ajumma stepped away, we’d try to cook our meat a little more well-done, but then she’d keep returning to grill for us. Obviously at the end of the day, eating it medium was just fine, since none of us suffered any adverse affects or had to cling to the side of a toilet for the better part of a day. On another note, the resulting broth at the perimeter of the grill was nothing less than spectacular. We only wished we weren’t so full to have more of the broth.
In hindsight, eating that much bulgogi was the worst idea ever. Only because I was meeting with some of my extended family members for lunch, not even 2 hours from when we had breakfast. Why did we pick that day to have such a big meal in the morning? Truly a dumbass decision.
2. Neul Bom
For the second BBQ experience on our journey, we headed to Jeju Island, where the famous black pig was at the top of the list for consumption. These black pigs are native to Jeju Island and have a different taste to regular pigs, with some saying it’s much richer but a lot chewier. I love all pigs equally, so whether they’re pink, black, white, spotted leopard print or zebra stripe, I would try them all.
I would also like to note that despite the Typhoon warnings, we flew out to Jeju Island anyway. Reports showed that it wasn’t going to hit the island directly; rather, it would pass by the outer edge of the island, bypassing the mainland. Well, that didn’t seem so bad. When we arrived, it was cloudy and a bit drizzly, so it didn’t seem that awful. When we picked up our rental car, we asked the attendant for a restaurant recommendation to try Jeju’s famous black pig and he punched in the coordinates to Neul Bom on our GPS unit, bringing us to this massive two-storey structure that looks more like a big department store than a restaurant.
The place is truly massive. It wasn’t too busy – around 6:00pm – but throughout our meal, we saw busloads of tourists being dropped off. I guess it’s a must-do on guided tours. As soon as our butts hit the seats, our table was adorned with a biggest selection of banchan I’ve ever seen at a Korean restaurant. It literally covered all the available surface of the table, save for tiny spots right in front of us for our plates and cutlery.
I tend to eat my pork belly fairly unadorned in the wrap. Just a fresh piece of buttery lettuce and a bit of spicy marinated green onions. The verdict on the black pig? Definitely chewier in texture compared to regular pig. As for the flavour, I couldn’t really tell any difference. It just tasted like porky goodness to me. Consensus around the table was that no one could tell the difference between the black pork and regular pork.
Interestingly enough, there’s a similar restaurant right across the street from Neul Bom, albeit definitely smaller in size. We wondered if it would’ve been any different had we chosen that place, but the rain was starting to hit hard and the sky darkened, so we headed for our hotel with our bellies full of pork. I’m always a fan of a pork BBQing session, so while I didn’t taste anything special with the black pig, it was still tasty in my books.
3. Hae Woon Dae Ga Deun
So while our first day on the island was pretty much a bust due to the torrential down pour and crazy winds from the Typhoon, Day 2 was much more promising and we packed it with as many activities as we could possibly fit, since our available time to get out and about was significantly cut by losing that first day. In between climbing up mountains and myriad of museums, we stopped by Hae Woon Dae Ga Deun, a restaurant that Mark picked out of his Lonely Planet guide.
I think at this point, we vowed not to eat any more black pig on this trip. I wasn’t too porked-out since it was just my second time eating it, but the others had had it for dinner the evening before (which was the outing that I missed). I didn’t think it was possible to ever get sick of eating this, but I guess everyone has their limits.
4. Ssang Doong-e Nae Suh Suh Galbi
Back in Seoul for the last leg of our journey, we got ourselves a nice hotel in the Mapo district. While we were being ferried there by taxi, we asked the ajumma taxi driver (who, by the way, was a pretty badass driver with balls of steel, going through red lights and all) if the Mapo area was famous for any type of food. She informed us about “Suh-Suh Galbi”, which translates to “standing galbi”. Yep… you eat the galbi while standing. I looked into this a bit more and the traditional way to eat suh-suh galbi is to stand around an oil drum (or large metal garbage can) converted into a BBQ grill to cook and eat the galbi. We learned that they still have a few places that do it the traditional way, but a few others have welcomed the idea of chairs into the mix, so you no longer have to stand.
Thoroughly intrigued, Jason sourced out a place that was walking distance from our hotel. The place was PACKED, but we must’ve had the Galbi Angels looking after us because we got there JUUUUST as a table freed up. Score! We also saw tables lined up outside that were all occupied, groups of hungry diners huddled around the grill, cooking their delicious-smelling galbi. Mmmm.
We got a pretty standard assortment of banchan. We ordered 4 servings of the marinated galbi and it was brought out to us quickly. The army of ajumma working in that place was impressive. They hustled around like they had infinite energy and you could tell that they knew what the hell they were doing.
In the end, we all smelled like galbi grills, but we all thoroughly enjoyed the food and the experience.
The suh-suh galbi definitely gets top billing on this trip as the best BBQ. Besides the deliciously marinated meat, being surrounded by tables full of my fellow people laughing, conversing, and just enjoying themselves really rounded out the entire experience. There’s nothing more powerful than food to bring people together, one table top grill at a time.