If you like grilled meat, pickled things, and food you can eat with your hands, you should be eating Korean barbecue more often. Pieces of charred meat are wrapped in cool, crunchy lettuce leaves, and each bite can be tweaked to your liking with all manner of condiments. Unlike hamburger buns, lettuce doesn’t mask and dull the flavors of meat; it enhances them, providing needed relief and contrast. That, along with the sharpness of pickles, means you can really push the salty flavors of the dish (soy in the marinade; spicy, bean-based ssamjang dip). There’s no chance you’re going to have a bland bite.
Korean barbecue also offers a chance to explore the world of banchan. These are side dishes, but there’s nothing peripheral about them. They are key to the meal. They are also a way of eating: Having good, intensely flavorful components on hand can make anything, even a plain bowl of rice, into an interesting meal.
You can, and should, make Korean barbecue at home. It requires a bit of prep, but all of it is easy, and most of it can be done ahead of time. (See accompanying recipes.) The best part of the meal is that the cooking is done at the table, together. It’s meant to be social. Invite a crowd. If you’re anything like me, you’ll appreciate the built-in activity. We’ve got things to grill. It’s so much better than small talk.
But the real conundrum is where to head when you want to go out for Korean barbecue. The Internet seems to feel there aren’t great options to be had in the city, and personal research mostly supports that. In my search for the best, I checked out several Boston-area spots, plus a few in the suburbs.
New Jang Su in Burlington blew everything else away. Both the food and the service make this small, cozy family restaurant stand out. Coax as many people as you can to come along with you, to make certain you try the maximum number of dishes.
For meat, I focused on kalbi (beef short rib), bulgogi (thinly sliced, marinated beef), and samgyeopsal (sliced pork belly), but options range beyond that to duck or squid or beef tongue. The short rib, not to be missed, is cut in the classic style, as opposed to the more familiar “LA style” — rather than cut small, thin slices downward through the bone, the butcher slices alongside it, folding the meat open and slicing again, unfurling it in a sheet. It’s marinated and brought out to the table, where everyone is gathered around a very hot tabletop grill. The presentation alone is exciting. Then the server drapes the sheets of short rib across the grill, nearly taking up the whole length of it. The bone remains on the plate until the rest is largely grilled, and knowing that the marrow-filled, charred bone will soon be yours to gnaw upon is a pleasant thought indeed. With scissors, the server deftly cuts the long pieces of meat into smaller ones, placing them along the edge of the cooking surface in front of each person. You get to literally eat each bite hot off the grill.
The bulgogi, sliced very thin, is less my style — I prefer intense char on the meat, and such thin pieces, especially when piled together, steam rather than crisp. The pork belly, which comes out brick red, marinated with the chile-based condiment gochujang, and tossed with thin pieces of onions and carrots, is cooked in a clever little square tray fashioned out of tin foil, so that nothing falls out or drips into the grill. After a few moments, it is all bubbling together, the rendering pork fat mixing with the fiery marinade. Good God, it’s tasty.
The banchan are top-notch. Crunchy, paper-thin Korean radishes marinated in just a touch of vinegar and sugar add an essential contrast to the crispy fat on the short rib. Truly funky, sharp kimchi is excellent, and unfortunately, no, you can’t have any extra to go, so live in the moment. Rather than ssamjang for dipping, they bring the soybean paste doenjang, which is not spicy but earthy, bringing up the flavor of everything it touches.
Some may complain that even New Jang Su is not good enough, because the restaurant uses gas grills rather than live charcoal — one of the central complaints about Korean barbecue in this area. While charcoal imparts its own unique wow, the experience here is in no way lacking. It’s great fun and great food. There’s no alcohol, but they’ll give you endless corn tea, which tastes a lot like toasted corn cob, with a mellow sweetness that’s perfect for chasing the spice. Driving a half-hour to Burlington, rolling up to a parking spot right out front, and walking in with a party of five and no reservation, all on a Saturday night, is a pretty neat trick, too.
If the drive’s not an option, Korean Garden in Allston is a good time and gets the basics right, even if it’s not quite as jaw-on-the-floor good. The staff is very friendly, the marinade on the beef is great, and the Korean Garden special kalbi utilizes nice cuts. The garlic pork belly is thick and juicy, and garlic cloves and slices of Korean green chile are grilled alongside it for tucking into your ssam, or lettuce leaf wrap. Everything I’ve had here is fresh and tasty. The banchan vary from very good to just OK, and the soy-laced sliced hot dog banchan seems to be born of a genuine cultural affection for the frank rather than current chef obsession with reinventing fast food. You also have the option to chase your ssam with soju, the Korean rice/potato/tapioca liquor that’s stronger than sake. Then tumble out onto Harvard Avenue and take your friends in search of some patbingsu, shaved ice with toppings. Or perhaps more soju and drinking snacks.
New Jang Su, 260 Cambridge St., Burlington, 781-272-3787.
Korean Garden, 122 Harvard Ave., Allston, 617-562-8989.Alison E. Hearn is a chef who has worked at B&G Oysters, Myers + Chang, Steel & Rye, and more. She can be reached at alisonehearn@