Korean barbecue, also known as gogigui, is a popular dining experience centered around cooking thinly sliced cuts of meat and vegetables on a gas or charcoal grill built into the table. The contested origins of Korean barbecue can be traced back centuries to nomadic groups across Asia. Though various meats are used today, historically beef or wild boar were more commonly grilled. Now diners can enjoy a wide array of proteins and banchan (small dishes) that accompany the customizable grilled offerings. With so many tasty choices, what is the best food to eat at a Korean barbecue restaurant?
Popular Proteins to Grill
While the proteins vary, the most common meats cooked tableside at Korean barbecue restaurants are:
- Beef short ribs
- Marinated ribeye
- Pork belly
- Spicy pork
Typically, the meats are marinated in a sweet and savory sauce, though some may have a spicier marinade as well. The thin slices allow the meat to cook quickly over the high heat of the grill. Patrons often wrap meat in lettuce or perilla leaves with rice, kimchi, ssamjang (a spicy paste), and other banchan.
Favorite Beef Cuts
Beef is a popular choice for Korean barbecue and often delivered in a combo set with other meat options. Top beef picks are:
- Short ribs – Extremely tender and well-marinated. Takes a bit longer to cook than other beef cuts.
- Ribeye – Tender and flavorful. Quick cooking.
- Brisket – Leaner than short ribs. Becomes very tender during grilling.
- Skirt steak – Thinly sliced. Cooks very quickly.
Can’t Miss Pork Options
Pork options at Korean barbecue offer a nice change from the ever-present beef. Favorites include:
- Pork belly – Very tender and juicy with crispy edges when cooked. Well-marinated.
- Thinly sliced pork – Quick cooking and pairs well with spicy marinades.
- Thick cut pork collar – Takes longer to cook but becomes extremely tender.
- Spicy pork – Typically comes with an extra spicy marinade for added flavor.
Best Supporting Proteins
While beef and pork dominate Korean barbecue menus, restaurants often offer accompaniments to complement the meal:
- Chicken – Usually marinated in a sweeter sauce. Cooks quickly.
- Shrimp – Plump, juicy shrimp cook fast over the high heat.
- Squid – Chewy texture pairs nicely when wrapped in lettuce.
- Octopus – Another chewy seafood option. Takes on nice charring.
An array of banchan, or small side dishes, always accompany Korean barbecue. These small plates offer great flavor pairings and texture contrasts to the grilled meats. Here are some classics:
No Korean meal is complete without kimchi, the national dish. Kimchi is made by fermenting vegetables like napa cabbage or radish with spices. It packs a nice spicy, sour punch to contrast the rich grilled meat.
Lettuce and Perilla Leaves
Crisp lettuce and earthy perilla leaves serve as edible wrappers for meat and rice. Diners assemble customized wraps with their choice of fillings.
Steamed white rice accompanies most Korean meals. The mild flavor soaks up meat juices and sauce for the perfect bite.
A thick, spicy paste typically made from gochujang (Korean chili paste), soybean paste, sesame oil, and seeds. It complements grilled meat nicely when wrapped in lettuce.
Other classic banchan diners love rounding out their Korean barbecue meal include:
- Kongnamul – Blanched soybean sprouts
- Kimchi – Cabbage, radish, or cucumber
- Namul – Seasoned greens like spinach or fernbrake
- Ddeok – Rice cakes
- Jeon – Pancakes made from seafood or kimchi
Sauces and Sides for Dipping and Dressing
Several condiments and sauces accompany the array of meats and banchan:
The quintessential Korean red chili pepper paste. It lends a spicy, umami flavor to meats and rice.
As mentioned earlier, this thick, spicy paste often contains gochujang and complements grilled meat perfectly.
Good for drizzling over rice or dipping cooked meat and additions into.
Roasted sesame oil lends nuttiness and richness when drizzled over grilled items.
Salt and Pepper
Sometimes simple is best. A sprinkle of salt enhances flavors, while cracked pepper lends a hint of spice.
Onions and Garlic
Grilled onions and garlic add caramelized complexity and sweetness to meats when wrapped together.
Fresh lime juice brightens up rice, meats, and banchan for a nice astringent contrast.
Noodles and Rice Cakes
Carb-lovers can also add the following menu items to further customize their Korean barbecue experience:
- Ramen noodles – Wheat noodles soaked in meat broth
- Rice cakes – Chewy ddeok soaked in spicy sauce
- Glass noodles – Nearly transparent noodles made from sweet potato starch
The noodles and rice cakes sop up the flavorful juices of the meat and provide added texture.
Cool Buns and Salads
When a break is needed from the constant grilling, Korean barbecue menus typically have a few lighter options as well:
Crisp lettuce, often iceberg, tossed with carrots, cucumber, tomato and a light dressing provides a refreshing crunch.
Also known as gim bap, these are typically seasoned rice rolled up with vegetables, egg, and meat in toasted seaweed sheets sliced into bites.
Fluffy steamed buns are stuffed with ingredients like kimchi and pork for a satisfying handheld meal.
Nourishing Soups and Porridge
Hearty soups also feature on many Korean barbecue menus:
- Kimchi-jjigae – Spicy kimchi stew often containing pork and tofu
- Soondubu-jjigae – Silky soft tofu stew with seafood or beef
- Seolleongtang – Milky ox bone broth soup with rice, scallions, and beef
- Juk – Thick porridge made from rice or other grains
These steaming options offer a comforting contrast to the crisp, charred meats and vegetables coming off the grill. The range of flavor profiles keeps the palate enthralled.
Satisfying Fried Rice and Stir Fry
rice dishes offer another way to take a break from grilling while satisfying carb cravings:
Kimchi Fried Rice
This dish offers a lovely spicy and sour crunch thanks to the addition of kimchi.
Bulgogi Fried Rice
Savory marinated beef combine with rice for added protein.
Vegetable Stir Fry
A quick stir fry of seasonal vegetables tossed in a Korean red pepper sauce.
The bright flavors and mix of textures in these rice dishes complement the smoky grilled items.
Classic Korean Desserts
While not as sweet as Western desserts, Korean barbecue restaurants often offer a few traditional treats to cap off the meal:
- Bingsu – Flavored shaved ice with sweet adornments like fruit, condensed milk, and red beans
- Hangwa – Assorted Korean cookies, crackers, and pastries
- Yakgwa – Fried honey and cinnamon pastries
- Hodugwaja – Fried dough pancakes filled with sugar, cinnamon, and nuts
The lighter desserts offer a sweet finish without weighing diners down after the hearty main dishes.
Beverages are key to helping cleanse the palate and refresh diners during a heavy Korean barbecue meal. Favorite options include:
- Soju – A clear Korean alcoholic drink typically made from rice. Has a lower alcohol content than other liquors.
- Makgeolli – A slightly sweet Korean rice wine with a milky appearance.
- Beer – Lagers pair excellently with grilled meats.
- Tea – Green tea offers a lightly bitter, cooling contrast.
Non-alcoholic choices include sodas, fresh fruit juice, milk tea, water, and more. Having a variety allows diners to sip and cleanse between the array of flavors.
While individual tastes will vary, focusing on the following food categories will help diners make the most of an authentic Korean barbecue meal:
- Pick 2-3 proteins to grill, concentrating on short ribs, brisket, pork belly and chicken for fast cooking and lots of flavor.
- Balance meats with lighter noodle, salad, or rice dishes in between grilling sessions.
- Take advantage of the banchan and sauces for flavor and palate cleansing.
- Dip cooked meats and vegetable wraps in ssamjang, gochujang, and soy for extra zing.
- Add some grilled garlic, onions, mushrooms, kimchi, and greens to meat and lettuce wraps.
- Try shaved ice, cookies or fried dough balls for a sweet but light finish.
- Drink lager, soju, or tea throughout to cut through the richness.
Following these tips will help you make the most of the customizable Korean barbecue experience. With so many possibilities, it’s hard to go wrong!
When it comes to the best foods to eat at Korean barbecue, diners are spoiled for choice. You really can’t go wrong with favorites like well-marinated short ribs, pork belly, chicken, and shrimp fresh off the grill. Wrap meats and veggies in crispy lettuce and perilla leaves, dip in spicy ssamjang and gochujang sauce, and balance with banchan like kimchi, rice cakes, noodles and greens.
Lighter noodle dishes, salads, cool buns, and soups offer variety during grilling lulls. Finish off the meal with shaved ice or traditional cookies and tea or beer. With mindful mixing and matching of sweet, spicy, salty, sour, bitter, and umami flavors and textures, Korean barbecue offers an interactive and immensely satisfying dining experience.