Barbecue that’s a cut above the usual fareWhen a friend invited me to a Korean barbecue restaurant called Sanbong Hwarogui, where she and her friends were having a casual night out in Apgujeong-dong, I didn’t expect the place to rank in my top 10 list of best meat restaurants in Seoul.
Inside the dimly lit wooden interior were booths and tables with foot wells, which reminded me of a Japanese sake bar, but the spacious two-story restaurant specializes in grilled meat and naengmyeon, or chilled buckwheat noodles. In fact, the restaurant’s name, Sanbong, has been around since 1984, long enough to have established its reputation for its great naengmyeon dishes.
But now, gourmets know that Sanbong Hwarogui (“hwarogui” means char-grilled) serves marinated grilled beef that’s so pink, well-marbled, long and thinly sliced like bacon that one might mistake it for real bacon.
Each strip, when placed on a steel grill fired with real charcoal, shriveled and shrank like bacon, but unlike bacon, which becomes crisp and reddish, the cooked beef was extremely tender and brown in color. And since it’s beef, it can safely be eaten rare.
The meal at Sanbong included a large assortment of side dishes that complemented the grilled meat. There was a large bowl of thinly sliced green onions, a bowl of spicy radish, a plate of green peppers, sesame and lettuce leaves, a bowl of dongchimi, or chilled radish cubes, and more.
The meat can be dipped in a spicy and sweet dipping sauce or wrapped in the green leaves in the traditional manner. Either way, the meat was delectable, although the heavy marinade or dipping sauce left a very sweet aftertaste.
A unique feature is that the relatively light and sweet meat was matched with a French red wine, a combination that gourmets have been raving about.
The restaurant does sell inexpensive soju, beer and other popular table wines, but for more than two or three persons, a bottle of this house wine is recommended. The wine, labeled “Moulin de Galetis,” with no vintage or “appellation d’origine controllee” specified, costs only 19,000 won ($19). A glass is 5,000 won.
I once invited a Frenchman to taste this wine, and he approved. This relatively light, easy-to-drink and very affordable table wine was perfect for the meat and the company around the grill.
I asked the owner, Chung Su-won, how he came to offer this particular cut of meat, which is used in making pastrami, but is uncommon in Korean cooking.
He said it was by sheer chance. “A supplier approached me one day with the fringe meat usually sold as part of the larger rib cut. I introduced the dish, and it was an immediate hit. It became so popular that I couldn’t get a sufficient supply.”
The only minor problem, it seemed, was that someone at the table had to be responsible for watching over the cooking process, which requires patience, because the meat is very thin and delicate, and cooks quite rapidly.
And, there is the portion size. A single serving (9,000 won plus 10 percent VAT) is spread out on a large flat plate but it’s really not enough to fill the hungry stomach of an average adult.
For an additional order, one can choose different types of meats on the menu. Other recommended dishes were pork belly, called saengsamgyeopsal (6,500 won), or plum-marinated pork (7,500 won).
They were very good when grilled and eaten together with sesame seed dipping sauce and/or green vegetables, and they went very well with the same red wine as well.
A bowl of mulnaengmyeon (5,500 won), or chilled noodles in soup, at the end of the meal left us thoroughly satisfied and with our palates refreshed. The chilled soup was again on the sweet side, but the thin noodles were very tasty.
But what about the typical smell from a Korean meat restaurant? The intimidatingly large fan right above the grill might have worked well. Upon leaving the restaurant, our clothes had a faint odor associated with barbecue restaurants, but it wasn’t overpowering.
Another good deal at Sanbong Hwarogui.
English: On the menu, a little spoken
Tel: (02) 546-2229
Hours: 11:30 a.m. - 2 a.m. daily
Location: On Eojingil, about 150 meters from Korea First Bank, opposite California Fitness Center in Apgujeong-dong
Dress Code: Come as you are
Second Opinion: “I’ve been to so many Korean barbecue restaurants in Korea and Japan, but I’ve never had anything like this. It is very delicious.” Julien Fernandez, www.sgcib.com
by Ines Cho