At the end of the meal, the two of us with the largest appetites were fighting over the last nugget of beef, which had been languishing in a corner of the grill until it was crisp and charred from the heat. It was precisely the sort of singe that only comes from an open flame, and attempting to duplicate it on a tabletop skillet is a sad and hopeless task.
There are a handful of wonderful Korean restaurants in and around Cleveland, but only one has tables with built-in gas grills. That's why when Seoul Hot Pot closed its doors in 2012 after nearly 30 years in business, fans of real Korean barbecue were predictably crushed. It's also why we were predictably elated when it reopened this summer, following a much needed renovation that scrubbed decades off its life.
Korean barbecue, like Chinese hotpot, Japanese shabu-shabu and American fondue, places the diner in charge of cooking his or her own dinner. Though largely dissimilar, all of these meals share one thing in common: They transform dinner into a social event where friends gather to cook, chat, eat and drink until they're too full to push away from the table. If you're the sort of person who seeks out adventurous food-related activities, reserve one of the four grill tables at Seoul Hot Pot.
Meals start with a cup of warm roasted barley tea that tastes like brewing beer smells. Next come the banchan, those myriad little shared side dishes of fermented, pickled, marinated, steamed or dried veggies, fish and tofu. Steamed rice, bowls of soybean-chili paste and a mountain of bright green lettuce leaves come next. While he's there, the owner fires up the grill to give it a chance to heat up.
The two most popular options for Korean barbecue are galbi ($23.95) and bulgogi ($16.95), the former being spiral-sliced bone-in beef short rib and the latter a pancake stack of thin-sliced beef sirloin. Both are marinated in a dark, sweet and garlicky sauce and delivered on a plate. Sure, it takes some work and finesse to man the grills, adding, moving, flipping and pulling pieces at just the right time, but as we discussed at the outset of this article, even the burnt bits are tasty. Both meats are well-marbled and flavorful, and one order of either is more than enough for two people.
When cooked, the meat is tucked into a lettuce leaf along with a dollop of that zesty bean paste, some fiery kimchi, maybe some rice, before being swaddled up and jammed in the pie hole. There's no wrong way to do it, and experimenting with various combinations is half the fun. Wash it all down with a cold OB Lager ($3.95), a Korean beer brewed from rice, or glasses of soju ($15), a high-test Korean spirit.
While the indoor cookout is more of a celebratory feast, Seoul Hot Pot has more than enough options for an everyday lunch or dinner too. A lengthy list of soups and stews could not be more season-appropriate, with cauldrons literally bubbling away when delivered to the table. A tart and pungent kimchi soup ($10.95) features cubes of silky smooth tofu, tender bits of pork, and the namesake pickled cabbage. Others are built around beef, fish and even dumplings. All are served with a side of steamed rice, which can be added to the broth or vice-versa.
Another still-cooking crock of delicious food is the ever-popular dolsot bibimbap ($11.95), a heavy bowl filled with rice, finely shredded veggies, a few pieces of meat, and a fried egg. The egg yolk gets popped, the pepper paste gets added, and the whole affair gets stirred around until well blended. Rice that sits adjacent to the hot bowl continues to cook and crisp until it's nutty and toasty.
Many folks start meals here with kimbap ($6.50), a Korean-style sushi roll with egg, pickled veggies, seasoned beef and sesame-scented rice, all wrapped up in seaweed and sliced into colorful rounds. Almost everybody orders the pajun ($6.50), a thin, crisp and eggy pancake studded with bits of shrimp and scallions, served with a sweet soy-based sauce for dipping. A similar sauce is served alongside the mandu ($6.50), steamed and pan-fried dumplings filled with meat and veggies.
After what owners Jin and Bok Hu have been through in the past three years — let alone the previous 25 —one hates to even bring up service issues. There is no mom-and-pop-ier establishment in town, with Jin managing the front of the house and Bok sequestered in the kitchen. That said, things can and do get bogged down when there's a small crowd.
Here, patience truly is a virtue.