Shaking It Up at Kang Ho Dong Barbecue
Just say brisket and you’ve got our attention. These paper thin slices are ready for the grill.
I’d read about lines outside. Eater warned of two-hour waits. But I’d seen photos of food world Mouthkateers -- Mr. Big Bourdain, sulky David Chang, Danny Bowien and his son – hogging up the barbecue at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. Hapless fan girl that I am, of course I needed to go too.
Ex-wrestler, comedian, talk show host Kang Ho Don launched this small global Korean BBQ empire.
It wasn’t one of those mean arctic March evenings. It felt almost mild last Thursday, but for some reason there was not much human backup on the sidewalk of 32nd Street in Manhattan’s Koreatown, when our posse of Ethnic Adventurers gathered at 7:30. Rina Oh, our own Korean Wonder Woman, had negotiated a promise from one of the owners that we would not wait long. But in fact, except for the two of us who are always early (an extra cocktail, some gritty gossip), we didn’t wait at all.
I find the house’s pomegranate soju cocktail is more refreshing than intoxicating.
I watched a bartender turning out the house cocktails with soju – the Korean distilled rice spirit. He filled a carafe with ice cubes, poured on several ounces of cherry red pomegranate nectar shaken with soju, and when it didn’t reach the rim, he added more ice cubes. “Hey, what’s that?” I cried, alerting my pals to the knavery as we studied the modest drink list:
“Honey Yuzu Lemon Soju Cocktail. $9 a glass, $21.99 the carafe,” it reads. “Melon Makgeolli with fresh honeydew juice, $9 and $21.99.”
Even with 150 seats on two floors, crowds line up outside by mid-evening waiting for tables to turn.
“The carafe is only for three,” the waiter assures us. Indeed, our pomegranate soju carafe fills three smallish glasses plus some, but the bloody Mary soju mix at $9 comes in a hefty canning jar. Either way definitely a win-win for the house, the American flagship of the small global barbecue empire created by one time champion wrestler, comedian, talk show host, Kang Ho-dong. He’s the hero perched atop the Empire State Building in the cartoon on the wall outside.
A platter of squid noodle stew to share is bound with a pleasant, almost sweet, tomato sauce.
But we aren’t here to get sloshed. If we wanted a high, we could order our soju straight up. I’m here for meat. Short ribs for sure. And whatever else has drawn the flash mobs. On the small menu, there is a beef combo ($59.99 for two, $99.99 to feed three or four) and a pork combo ($44.99 and $83.99) plus fried dumplings, seafood pancake, tofu stews and meats by the platter too. I panic at the unknown. But Rina and our Ethno Junkie Rich -- he haunts ethnic neighborhoods and reads menu Korean -- take over the order in cahoots with our host, Jim Yang.
The table is set with soft tofu, cabbage kimchi, radish in beet juice and condiments for bbq.
The bare wood of our elongated six-seater is already crowded with metal bowls, set up for action surrounding the cooker as we settle in. For each of us, there is a soupspoon and a pair of metal chop sticks that look like knitting needles. Instead of the usual lettuce leaf meat wrappers, romaine is chopped to nibble on, the waiter points out. He advises piling the cooked meat onto a radish thin, adding some sprouts and scallion, some spicy gochujang sauce, and touching it down in the long-simmered house dipping sauce -- fortified with a stir-in of wasabi for optional extra heat. Then you eat it like a taco.
The six of us have spent time exploring this street already. I know that the number of banchan -- small bowls of vegetables and pickles and variations on kimchi, sent out by the house -- is important. And the pickings are skimpy here. Just two small bowls of kimchi and another two of soft tofu with soy chile dressing, though it happens to be especially luscious, like a savory panna cotta.
Scrambled eggs will cook in a grill well on one side, mozzarella corn on the other.
But there are surprise amuses that will cook as soon as the stove is turned on, Yang, one of the partners, points out. Tucked into one well framing the hot plate are scrambled eggs, and on the other kernels of corn with mozzarella. I snatch a spoonful of eggs just gelled the way I like mine.
There’s nothing stuffy or arrogant about this staff. They’re all your new best friends.
Of course, we have to order brisket. Brisket is the new spareribs in carnivorean circles these days. “Everyone in this crowd likes their meat rare,” Rich warns the waiter. But, of course, we all know brisket is never rare, and it won’t be caramelized, not tonight.
Our waiter flips the squiggles of brisket as they cook, dropping them onto our plates.
Paper thin slices, richly marbled, arrive rolled up like diplomas, and get transferred to the fire by our waiter, quickly browning – or rather graying -- and curling up. These anemic little squiggles are not the caramelized chunks or burnt brisket bits we know from Texas roundups or Jewish mothers. Never mind – I pile a couple of bites onto my radish crisp, pile on the toppings, dunk into the sauce, and nibble my “taco.”
The brisket radish taco is good but the rich and fatty short rib taco is even better.
Then it’s almost too late to get scrambled eggs that aren’t overcooked. With competing chopsticks and spoons dipping, eggs and the cheese streaked corn vanish. Then as one waiter starts searing, turning and cutting a thick short rib steak into rich little squares, another dishes up stir-fried squid and noodles in a wonderfully balanced, almost sweet, tomato sauce. Small metal bowls hang over the edge of the table.
Chef Deuki Hong’s time with Chang, Sanchez and Jean-Georges gives an edge to his Korean menu.
Now all of us are snatching marvelous squares of short rib off the grill so they don’t overcook. There is a second thick slice waiting to cook. At the next table, Deuki Hong, the baby-faced chef with a thick toss of bangs and a sweet smile is doing the honors himself on the grill. As a teenager, he worked with Aarón Sanchez and David Chang and did time with Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He trains the staff to handle the grilling.
The $17 squid and noodle stir fry is easily enough for our six ethnic adventurers.
A thick, layered triangle of fried seafood pancake is set before me. I love Korean pancakes. This one is especially crunchy, delectably greasy too. A waiter brings white radish kimchi in a thick icy broth. Rich and I pour some into clean bowls and drink it. I haven’t a clue if this is de rigueur, but it’s thrilling. It would be great as a sorbet or fine with a shot of vodka.
We ordered the pork jowl but there’s also belly, collar and skin – or a pork combo.
The pork jowl Yang encouraged us to order has arrived. Raw, it looks like slabs of white fat. I’m having some doubts. But the small squares brown as they cook and they’re not all fat. The leftover seafood pancake has migrated to my corner of the table. I finish off one triangle. And then another after offering it around and finding no takers. No one notices my greediness.
Waiters shake the metal lunchboxes ferociously to mix rice, kimchi, fish cake and fried egg.
Did we order a lunchbox? It’s called dosirak, a small metal box filled with rice, kimchi, fish cake and a fried egg. Well, here they are. Apparently carrying a lunch box to school shakes it up, Yang explains. The mix that emerges is “sort of like bibimbap,” he says. Here the waiters shake them up. A duo dance up and down, arms swinging till, indeed, the contents are all shook up. I taste a spoonful.
Everyone stops to watch when the waiters go into their ritual lunch box convulsions.
A few of us are getting anxious. We still have an order of marinated short rib coming. And brisket soybean paste stew. When did we order that? Most of us are already full. “Can we cancel the stew?” we ask. At that very moment a steaming bowl arrives.
“No problem,” a hostess assures us. “Do you want to cancel the marinated short rib too?” Five of us vote “yes.” Rich looks dashed. What wimps we are, his expression telegraphs. I have to agree. I especially regret not tasting the stew as I zip up my parka. I can’t believe that with all that meat, the bill is only $47.50 per person, tip included.
Partner Jim Yang consults on our order with Korean Wonder Woman Rina and ethno junkie Rich.
It’s not 10 pm yet, and though most of the tables turn quickly and crowds keep filing in all evening, there is no one waiting outside. Kang Ho Dong would be serving lunch next day if Rich decided to return. And the kitchen would be open on weekends till 6 am. That’s because two of the Manhattan partners, ex-wrestler Joseph Ko and Bobby Kwak, own a club called Circles. There are three shifts for staff here. As manager Philip Han explained, “We stay open to feed the club workers when they finish for the night.” Also good news for insomniacs.
1 East 32nd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. 212 966 9839. Sunday through Thursday 11:30 am to 2 am. Friday and Saturday 11:30 am till 6 am.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.
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