Korean restaurants abound in Philly and the suburbs. Go to the 69th street area in Upper Darby and you can find half a dozen, along with H Mart’s food court. Go to North Philly and there’s at least a dozen more. Plus there’s some in Delaware and Jersey. And in center city there’s at least a handful.
They all tend to serve Korean BBQ of some type, along with standard Korean fare. You may even be able to find Korean BBQ at certain Japanes/sushi restaurants. Many sushi joints are run by Koreans, so a few of them serve some of the more palatable Korean dishes, like kalbi. There’s even a sushi place around the corner from me in Ardmore where I can get beef or pork Korean bbq.
Korean BBQ in and of itself is a very popular and likeable dish, even for less adventurous people who do not like “ethnic” foods. You might not want to try kimchi or japchae or daenjang, but everyone that has ever had Korean BBQ has liked it. What’s not to like? Meat marinated in a nice slightly sweet marinade and grilled. It’s fun too.
For the real Korean BBQ experience, you have to go to a place where you can cook it yourself, and where they bring out hot coal/hot wood to cook it on, not a propane grill. After King Tut, my sister-in-law wanted Korean BBQ, so we headed up to Kim’s Restaurant in North Philly’s famed 5th Street. Ha. Getting to this place can be scary. The area is sketchy. Or as they say in Ireland, it’s a bit dodge. It used to be an old diner, and still looks like it. They recently painted it bright yellow and it’s even more hideous on the outside than I remember. There’s a tiny parking lot with a security guard and security cameras. I told you that the area was sketchy.
Inside also looks like a diner, but with a Korean BBQ Twist. Each table has a “pit” where the coals go for grilling, and there’s a vent hood right over it that goes up and down. Does this vent hood serve a function? Yes. But does it function well? Not really. I mean you still stink like Korean BBQ once you’re done, and it seeps into your clothes, hair, and pores. You’ll be smelling like grilled meat for days, but it’s a kind of badge of honor. But the vent does help in making things not be so smoky. But there’s no getting around the lingering Korean BBQ smell. I still smell it on my jacket.
We got a 2-person order of the spicy kalbi. Kalbi is the marinated short ribs. Bulgogi is marinated similarly, but it’s not short ribs, it’s sliced beef. I like the kalbi better. It’s actually not nearly as spicy as it sounds, it just adds an even nicer flavor than the regular. We also got a 1-person order of the regular galbi. It was all freakin delicious.
My brother wanted some naengmyun, which is in concept, a very strange dish. It’s a cold noodle soup with buckwheat noodles. These noodles are grey, so for alot of people, this is going to be strange. They also include some meat and veggies, a hard boiled egg, and it’s all in a cold beef-based broth. You can add some mustard or vinegar for extra flavor. I love it, but it’s definitely an acquired taste.
They bring out the hot coals/wood (I’m never sure what they use) with a slotted grilling plate on top. They oil it a bit and then you let it heat up. The meat comes out on big plates and then you cook it yourself. It’s really not as much work as you may think it is. You just lay the meat down and when it’s cooked, you flip it over. It doesn’t really need very much cooking. You’ll be chowing down in just a few minutes. They always give you some sliced garlic and peppers that you can cook on the grill as well. I love nearly burnt sliced garlic. Yum! You also get red leaf lettuce whenever you order kalbi. You can use it to make a little lettuce taco by putting some rice and a piece of meat on the inside. You also get some daenjang based paste to put on your little lettuce taco, if you like. Daenjang is made from fermented soybeans. This is one of the stinkiest things you will ever smell. You either like it or you don’t. No in betweens. It’s definitely not for novices!
Kim’s restaurant always gives you a stew made with daenjang and tofu for free. I’m not sure why they do it, but I love getting free food! Korean stews always come out in these little earthenware pots. It has a strong smell, it’s hot and steaming, and it’s good! But like I said, it’s not for everyone. And of course, you get many banchan, the small side dishes, to eat with your entrees. You get a bowl of rice too. The food at Kim’s is even good when it’s not of the meat variety. This was the first time I’d been here in many many years. The owners have changed since my last visit, but the food still kicks butt. And for cook it yourself Korean BBQ, it’s still the tops.