Even though summer slowly slides into its home stretch, it is always the season for some kind of barbecued food in New Jersey. Most of us in the Northeast start to strap on the covers to our grills in the fall, but there are some hardcore grill masters who brave the winter cold and step on their snowy decks all for the love of that smoky-flavored meat.
In the cooler months, for those of you who prefer to stay warm while the food is being prepared, try a different kind of barbecue – one you may not have been exposed to yet: Korean barbecue or Gogigui. In this style, diners are seated at a table with a grill (either gas or charcoal) built into it.
A friend first told me about these restaurants 10 years ago and said she went to one on Broad Avenue in Palisades Park. I remember trying to find the place she described and seeing BBQ after BBQ sign on nearly every restaurant façade on that street, and all were written in Korean. It should’ve been no surprise since 19 of the top 101 cities in the U.S. with the most residents born in Korea are in New Jersey: the top one being Palisades Park with 30.4%. I wound up at the “wrong” one but found it to be good anyhow. So I was encouraged by a number of Korean acquaintances to go to one of the better ones – So Moon Nan Jip – which I now guide people to by saying “the one with the red awning.”
It can be a little discouraging to a non-Korean at first, as you wait for your table and almost everyone around you is speaking Korean. You know you’re thinking, “If Koreans are eating the Korean food, it must good.” I watched the busboys using large metal forceps to carry burning-hot metal trays filled with fiery wooden charcoal that create stray sparks. I cringed every time I saw them being placed in the table, hoping nobody would get burned or nothing would be dropped. This burning wood flavor, however, is what separates So Moon from some of the other places that use gas grills.
For the novices, open the menu to the “BBQ” page and select your meat of choice (Sol Moon also offers shrimp barbecue). The rest will just keep coming to the table. The waitresses generally know the basics of English and immediately guide you on how to eat: You are given heavier metal chopsticks, not the disposable wood ones; a basket of lettuce leaves are brought out and a number of small dishes, called banchan – kimchi, pickled radish, bean sprouts, spinach, potato salad, cucumber and more. I’ve learned anything with red color in it is hot, hot! But my favorite starter is the bowl of bubbling egg that is brought to the table. It resembles a scrambled egg soufflé and is eaten with a spoon. Get ready for some finger cramping if you’re used to eating with light wooden chop sticks!
When the hot coals are dropped into the table, your meat selection is brought uncooked and cut into small pieces. I found it amusing to watch them cut food with scissors. It was also either funny or embarrassing to have the waitress turn our meat over for us, basically doing the cooking, while all the other tables of Korean diners were cooking the meat themselves. Every time I reached for the tongs, someone would come running to “rescue” me. The most popular dish to order for barbecue is Kalbi, which is marinated beef short ribs. Once cooked, put a few pieces in the lettuce leaf, throw some rice and grilled onions and spiced greens in there, wrap it like a burrito, pick it up and bite into it. I understand that in Korean culture, it is impolite to bite your food in pieces, so I was a bit taken aback watching some people shove their entire lettuce package in their mouths at once!
In New Jersey, we are fortunate to be able to experience the foods of many cultures. So find a Korean bbq restaurant, especially in one of the highly populated areas listed above, and enjoy it in the winter particularly – it gets quite warm at the table.
*Photos by Joia Pisani