If you’ve never had Korean food before or are just apprehensive in trying it because you don’t know what to order and/or how to behave, then I’ve got just the thing for you. Korean Barbecue. This is a fun way to introduce yourself and your friends to the awesome cuisine that it is. There are many, many types of Korean food (and restaurants): soups, stews, noodles, fried chicken, pizza, rice bowls, grilled meats, even sushi (well, maki, that is). The list goes on. We’ll take baby steps and concentrate on barbecue. Because it’s so much fun. You’ll love it. I promise.
First things first. This is a group activity. The more people the better, the merrier. Besides, if you live ITP, you’ll need friends to talk to on the long drive over. Because, unfortunately, (almost) all Korean BBQ joints are in Duluth, Suwanee, and Buford Highway. But it will be worth the drive. Trust me. Ready?
In a nutshell… Korean barbecue joints use either coal, gas, a combination of both coal and gas, or propane gas canisters for grilling. Tables are outfitted with a hole in the middle — the barbecue pit — and topped with a steel grill to cook the meats on. Other places use table-top domes, heavy cast-iron trays or griddles which are set on an angle so that the grease from meats can drip onto a bowl. When you sit down, you will be given an assortment of banchan — appetizers or accompaniments to your meal. These consist of assorted pickled veggies (kimchi) in small plates, sauces to dip your meat in, and, rice wrappers (large squares of pasta sheets made with rice flour), sheets of radish, and romaine lettuce leaves to wrap your meats in. Your server will then start grilling your meat of choice and some kimchi. Use your chopsticks to take cooked meat from the grill and transfer them to your plate. Dip the meat in the sauces and either eat them as is or wrapped with or without the grilled kimchi. Half-way through your meal, your server will give you a steaming bowl of soup. Dish it out and pass it around. Other places give you a bowl of steamed egg custard soup that’s just absolutely heavenly. At the end of your meal (if you’re in a place that does not use coal), the server will cook fried rice on the grill. Believe me, nothing tastes better than rice cooked in meat drippings.
Almost all of these places have all-you-can-eat meal deals and I highly recommend getting those over anything else especially on your first visit. You’ll get thinly sliced beef brisket and delicious pork belly but there are a la carte cuts that are also available such as short ribs and ribeye. Now that you know what to expect and what to do, let’s go on a field trip. Here are my favorite Korean BBQ places in our city, in no particular order.
Popular among tourists, Honey Pig has a fantastic ambiance and is the only place in town that uses cast-iron domes for their barbecue. I recommend getting the all-you-can-eat meat for $21.99, which is an awesome deal. They use not only good cuts of meat but also good quality in general.
Catering to a younger, hip crowd, Iron Age offers a $14.99 all-you-can-eat deal. Young, good looking male servers dressed in military-style uniforms mill about ready to serve (sorry, no pun intended) patrons who linger around watching music videos of boy and girl bands on the big projector screen while downing bottles upon bottles of Makkoli, a popular Korean milky rice wine. The pork belly here (uncured thick slabs of bacon) come in several flavors: plain, garlic, spicy, and miso. Try them all as they’re all good. One tip, reservations are highly recommended especially for big groups as waits of more than an hour on the weekends are not uncommon.
The newest of the BBQ bunch, Star Daepo has funky furniture. The tables inside are regular Korean BBQ tables. But they’ve got a quirky patio that has been covered and converted into a dining room. Here, they have these cute table bases made of steel trash cans geared for parties of two to four. Beware of the back-less, tiny stools. Do not, I repeat, do not make a mistake of leaning back. I witnessed an older man keel over right in front of me and landed on my feet. But I digress. The cuts of pork here are thicker and the tofu soup that comes with your meal is amazing: really flavorful broth.
Hae Woon Dae is one of Atlanta’s oldest Korean restaurants. My earliest memory of eating at this restaurant was in the mid 90s. There were three of them fierce competitors within a one-mile radius: the now closed Seoul Garden originally located on BuHi, and another favorite place also already closed but whose name escapes me at the moment. In any case, charcoal is used here. The kimchi is pretty stellar. The pork belly has that chewy fat that I love. And, more than anything else, the service rocks.
Han Il Kwan is one of the few places that uses charcoal for grilling. There’s just something about the taste and smell of charcoal on grilled meats. To use the charcoal grills, your party must order two types of meat from the barbeque part of the menu. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the few places that do not offer all-you-can-eat deals but the meats here have thicker cut and of really good quality. I highly recommend getting the galbi (shortribs) and ribeye. The gyoza, kimchi fried rice, rice cake soup, and short rib soup (all a la carte) are fantastic here.
If you want a quieter, more subdued, more family-oriented atmosphere, then head on over to Seodulnyuk. They have meat combo meals starting at $40 that are sure to fit any one’s palate (and budget). These meals are good enough for two to three people. What I like about this place is the big pieces of brisket that they serve. No matter which meats you choose, you will not be disappointed.
So there. Grab a bunch of friends and go! You can thank me later