Lakewood is home to a remarkable culinary gem clustered in a single neighborhood along South Tacoma Way: a concentration of about 20 Korean eateries and grocery stores. But while diners in South Sound are well versed in Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, I’ve encountered seasoned diners who consider Korean cuisine a mystery. I call it the most delightful and sometimes under-appreciated cuisine nobody talks about.
During the next four weeks, I’ll help readers explore the three-mile stretch in Lakewood that is home to Korean barbecue restaurants, soup shops, cafes, grocery stores and dessert bakeries.
To kick off this series today, I’m digging first into Korean tabletop barbecue. It’s the easiest introduction for newcomers to Korean cuisine. It’s approachable, flavorful, healthful and meant for group dining.
The tradition is transported straight from Korea. Korean restaurant cuisine isn’t Westernized for an American palate.
What you eat on South Tacoma Way is what you’d find in a restaurant in Seoul. Korean tabletop barbecue is relatively new, a post-Korean war invention. It represents a time in South Korea when food became more plentiful and families gathered in restaurants to enjoy the bounty.
Whether you’re in Seoul or South Tacoma Way, the ritual is the same – there are no official courses, food is brought to the table all at once, and it’s meant to be eaten family style. The focus of the meal is the meat: chicken, pork, beef or seafood that diners cook on a tabletop gas-fueled grill. You’ll be brought lettuce leaves to wrap up with the rice, slices of garlic or jalapeno and banchan to fold and tuck into a little lettuce purse full of flavors as vivid or mild as you desire. Each meal is accompanied by shallow dishes of pickled – sweet, sour and spicy – vegetables called banchan (or mit banchan if you want to be formal). There is rice and always a cup of broth or soup. Ready to try it? Here’s a brief look at the flavor elements of Korean cooking, and glimpses of five tabletop barbecue restaurants and what you’ll find at each:
The cuisine: The flavors of Korea
You might know the restrained minimalism of Japanese food, the range of salty to sour flavors of Chinese, the bold harmony of bitter-sweet-sour-salty-sweet in Thai and Vietnamese, but what is the flavor of Korean food? Think “assertive,” said cookbook author and food writer Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee.
“We’re not shy about flavor,” Lee said by phone. “Think bold, strong flavors.” Sour, pungent and robust.
“It’s seasonal-based foods, based on an agrarian society,” Lee said. A longheld tradition of preserving the growing season’s bounty still exists in Korea. Even today, families prepare the cabbage dish kimchi from handed-down recipes, although preservation isn’t a necessity for winter survival anymore, Lee said. It’s that pungent flavor of fermented, preserved kimchi most people associate with Korean cuisine.
The diet always has been more grounded in seafood than meat. “Meat is not a huge tradition in Korean cooking, even though that’s what’s most popularly exported,” with Korean tabletop barbecue, Lee said. “Korea is a peninsula, so seafood is big. You can throw out a net and whatever you catch is what you cook.”
Because Korea is on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, much of the seafood is just what you’d find here. The ingredients aren’t just adaptable, they’re the same.
What you find in Korean restaurants is the food of working people, not the more restrained flavors of “royal” food, which Lee described as relying less on new world ingredients such as chili and garlic.
“The flavorful food – that’s for farmers. The chili powder gave them strength to work in fields. Eating spicy would make you robust,” she said.
Note: Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee is the author of “Eating Korean: From barbecue to kimchi, recipes from my home.” She also has a website I highly recommend visiting, littlececilia.com
The protocol: A guide to tabletop barbecue
To start: Most barbecue restaurants will start the cooking for you, using large scissors to cut the meat. After that, you’re on your own. Keep your tongs separate – one for raw, one for cooked. The same goes for scissors. Don’t cross-contaminate.
What about the smoke?: Each restaurant has venting hoods, powerful vacuums that suck away the smoke – and small children, if you’re not careful.
Meat: Most offer combination deals for about $30 listed for two diners, but they easily feed three-four and come with the makings for lettuce wraps and soup, rice and banchan – all served family style. Some places have all-you-can-eat for $18-$20 per person. If you’re a first-time visitor, consider going a la carte (meat and seafood priced $12-$20 per meat selection) and give two meats a try (enough for three diners). The meat is served raw on a platter. You cook it.
The best grills: The grates set over open flame at Honey Pig, Palace and Cham. Flames lick the meat with flavor only direct-flame cooking can provide, but be careful of burning the meat. The metal solid surfaces at Chung Ki Wa and O-bok cook slower, but more evenly.
Ask for a replacement: The marinade burns on the grill and makes the meat stick. Ask a server for a new grate or grilling plate.
Don’t be shy: Ask for more banchan if you want it. Most places will give you an endless supply.
Lettuce wraps: The standard protocol at Korean barbecue restaurants is to grill the meat then tuck it into lettuce leaves with other flavorful ingredients. Squares of rice paper (the texture of chewy rice noodles) or broad daikon radish slices are sometimes offered for wrapping ingredients. You’ll also get a plate of jalapenos, garlic and/or scallions for grilling with the meat, a bowl of rice, and bowl of shredded lettuce dressed with a chile vinaigrette – all to stuff in the lettuce leaves. For added flavor, you might get squeeze bottles of chili sauce or a sweetened vinaigrette and a two-sided plate of salt-and-pepper flavored oil and chili paste (gochujang). You also will get somewhere between six-eight plates of banchan (pickled appetizers) and soup for sipping.
Cham Garden Korean BBQ
Where: 10518 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood, 253-584-2287
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1-9 p.m. Sundays, closed Mondays
The scene: At the far end of a strip mall is Cham Garden, a 34-seat serve-yourself Korean tabletop barbecue restaurant with metal grate grills set over open flame. The restaurant is sweet – cute and clean with cushy booths and floral patterns. If you’re a first-time visitor to Cham, Danny Pak, son of owners James and Yoon Hee Pak, will give you the dinner-and-a-show experience, detailing the how-to of Korean tabletop barbecue cooking. His mother operated another barbecue buffet restaurant, Manna Garden, from 2000-04 on Pacific Avenue, then opened Cham Garden in 2007. She’s the chef, preparing banchan and marinated meats from scratch every day. Danny and James play hosts in the dining room.
The eats: Unlike neighboring Korean barbecue restaurants where diners select meat from a set menu, Cham is a choose-your-own adventure where diners select from a buffet line of a few dozen uncooked meats, veggies and banchan. Eat as much or as little as you want for $13.99 at lunch and $16.99 at dinner. But it would be a sin to leave without trying the smoked pork jowl, a meat that resembles pork belly (the cut used to make American bacon) that has a deep, smoky flavor.
Pak began grilling smoked pork jowl and explained, “It will change your life.”
I had my doubts until I bit into the smoky, supple meat that tasted like a bacon carnival. I went back for more. Twice.
Bulgogi with mushrooms, marinated spicy pork and beef brisket all should be sampled as well. The meat tasted tender and teased with flavor from marinades all house made by Yoon Hee Pak. I stopped counting after seeing 15 banchan choices – and there was rice and two kinds of soup, too.
Service: Pak played an exceptional host on my anonymous visits. He’s one of the greatest food ambassadors for Korean food.
Where: 8602 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood, 253-582-6713
Hours: 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays
The scene: Something akin to a Korean mom’s dining room, the interior is homey with potted plants. High-backed booths offer privacy, window decals cloud out the traffic of South Tacoma Way, and oversized tables work well for big groups. O-bok is the oldest tabletop barbecue restaurant on South Tacoma Way with the same continuous owner, says the family that opened the restaurant in 1989. Sun Ok Chung has been a fixture of the Korean dining community since long before then, working at one of the first Korean restaurants in the region. If there’s a mother of Korean dining in Lakewood, Chung is it. Meat is cooked on a raised, solid metal pan with more area for grilling.
The barbecue menu: O-bok has the most extensive list of meat and seafood sampled for this report, with 17 meats served a la carte. Offerings are $15.95-$20.95 for each platter feeding one-two, or two combination meals for large parties priced $39.95-$69.95. Platters and combos are served with wraps, soup, rice and banchan.
The eats: We dug into the modeum gui combo ($39.95) with four meats: sweet-salty marinated ribye, beef short ribs, chili flecked spicy chicken and spicy pork. All were plentiful and deeply flavored. Although listed as feeding two, it easily feeds a family of four. Seven plates of banchan tasted lighter and more mild than others sampled for this report. Soup was a mild broth with crunchy vegetables and tofu.
Also serving: Cold noodles, bibimbab served in a stone pot, beef broth soup, tofu soup, soybean paste stew
Service: Gracious, accommodating, doting. We didn’t even have to do any of the grilling. This should be a favorite place for first-time barbecue eaters.
Where: 8718 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood, 253-581-0880
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight daily
The scene: This is the third restaurant in a Northwest chain of Korean barbecue restaurants with locations in Federal Way and Bellevue. And it is the place for late-night dining, crowds of families on weekend nights and occasionally small groups of animated men chatting and sipping soju, a distilled Korean spirit. The grills are circular grates set over open flame.
The barbecue menu: Ten a la carte platters of meat ($14.95-$24.99, each platter feeding one-two) and two combos come with four or seven meats ($59.95-$69.95). Platters and combos all are served with wraps, soup, rice and banchan.
The eats: We opted for the all-you-can-eat special for $15.99 with 10 kinds of meat. Palace wins for most variety at the fairest price for a set menu. The upside is you will leave stuffed, the downside is you might pop off the top button of your pants and you can’t take leftovers. We struggled to finish the final seafood course, but we tackled four kinds of marinated beef, beef tongue, spicy pork, pork belly, chicken, octopus and shrimp. Our young diner loved grilling the octopus, but eschewed the head-on shrimp. Eight kinds of banchan impressed with sharp flavors. The soups are tofu or an eggy souffle that bubbles as it cooks and deflates as it cools.
Also serving: Cold noodle dishes, seafood pancakes, tofu soup, beef rib soup, rice cake soup, soy bean paste stew
Service: Friendly and accommodating. Your server will do most of the cooking.
Chung Ki Wa
Where: 8601 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood, 253-588-5976
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
The scene: A family restaurant with roomy tables and well-spaced booths makes for a nicely private dining experience. The atmosphere is homey and warm. Meat is cooked over solid surface cooking pans set over gas.
The barbecue menu: Nine a la carte meat platters ($14.95-$19.95) and three combos for larger parties with four-six meats each ($40.95-$57.95). Platters and combos are served with wraps, soup, rice and banchan.
The eats: We settled on a combo with six meats ($40.95) and marveled at how the menu listed the feeding for two, but 4-5 would be more accurate. The meats were all highly seasoned, tenderized from acidic marinades. Ours came with sliced pork belly, sweet-salty bulgogi, a roll of marinated short ribs, salty brisket, dark chicken meat marinated in a savory sauce and spicy pork with flecks of chili. The raw meat arrived woven like a basket – someone in the kitchen spent time on the platter. Eight banchan featured spicy-puckery and crisp vegetables. Soup came in two choices, a mild broth or a spicy tofu soup. Dessert was unexpected and welcomed: a sweetened cup of chilled cinnamon tea.
Also serving: Seafood pancake, beef bone soup, dumpling soup, rice cake soup, bibimbap, soft tofu soup
Service: Doting. You won’t have to do much cooking and you’ll never have to ask twice for a banchan refill.
UPDATE 2013: This restaurant is now closed. It’s now Gangnam BBQ. Read the review here.
The scene: A handsome wood-paneled dining room with copper-hued venting hoods hovering over tables with square open-grate metal grills set over gas flame. The dining room is decorated in honeyed and earthen hues with roomy tables yielding plenty of space for banchan. Honey Pig is one of the more stylish barbecue restaurants on South Tacoma Way. Powerful venting hoods also make it one of the most drafty.
The barbecue menu: Ten a la carte platters of meat ($13.95-$16.95 for each platter feeding one-two). Small to large combos with two-six meats for families ($30.95-$79.95). Platters and combos are served with wraps, soup, rice and banchan.
The eats: We ordered the unlimited chef’s special ($19.95 per person). A plate piled with pink ribbons of raw sliced pork belly, sliced brisket and plate-size sheets of thicker-cut pork arrived on a platter. Bad news from the first bite: The meat was too chewy. A second visit a month later with marinated beef, pork and chicken ($32.95) proved more successful with tender meats teased with spicy-salty marinades. Unlike other barbecue restaurants, Honey Pig serves sticky rice paper for building wraps, but lettuce leaves can be requested. Six banchan were powerfully flavored and soup was a chili-flecked broth with crunchy vegetables and tofu.
Also serving: Bibimbap, rice cake soup, seafood stew, soft tofu soup, beef rib soup, seafood pancake
Service: Of the flag-down-and-plead variety. If you want something, you have to ask for it. You’re on your own for the grill, but they’ll get you started.
This is the first installment in a series on Korean dining along and around South Tacoma Way in Lakewood. The schedule:
April 27: Korean barbecue, a guide for first-timers
May 4: Soup shops of South Tacoma Way
May 11: Sticky, delicious chicken and ingredient expeditions
May 18: The sweeter side of South Tacoma Way
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals.