While the first writeup on bulgogi correctly notes that the Korean grilled meat dish is sometimes referred to as "Korean barbecue," the term has more recently been used to describe a series of restaurants gaining popularity around the world. Those will be the focus of this writeup.
Have you ever gone to a restaurant and wondered what it would be like to cook the food yourself, at your own pace, and experience a wide variety of tastes? Of course you have. Korean grillhouse/"Korean barbecue" restaurants have been popping up across North America (if anyone can tell me whether they've also been spotted in Europe and Oceania that'd be great) with reckless abandon and offer you the chance to do just that.
Do just what?
Cook your own food! Every table at a Korean barbecue has a gas-powered grill in the centre. Depending on just what you offer, your server will bring you small trays of uncooked meats and fish. (Every Korean BBQ restaurant I've been to offers a variety of options as well as the infinitely more popular all you can eat selection, during which servers bring you tray after tray of whatever you want until you're ready to burst.)
Typically speaking, someone from the restaurant will seat you and give you some time to look over the menu, just like almost any other restaurant. The menu tends to list the raw foods you can choose from as well as more standard items such as the drink and dessert menus and some more traditional a la carte items. You might choose any of those, but let's just say for the sake of argument that you make like the countless Korean BBQ patrons before you and order the all you can eat special.
Your server will first bring you several small dishes containing appetizer items. Among these are often mild and spicy bean sprouts, kimchi, tofu, pickled radishes, rice and soup. You can also ask for additional servings of these. A short time later, he or she will return with larger trays of the meat and fish that will form the bulk of your meal. The standards are usually pork, beef, chicken, ribs, liver, salmon, squid and fish filets. Some restaurants also include lamb and shrimp, as well as other foods. Your server will then light your grill and leave you to it, returning occasionally to refill your drink and ask whether you want more meats, veggies or tofu.
If you've never been to a restaurant such as this before, it's a good idea to pass the tongs to someone who has, or who's an experienced cook. Some of the meats, especially the chicken, are dangerous if not fully cooked. It's also a good idea to cook all the other meats before the chicken, as uncooked chicken is the most likely to cause salmonella poisoning.
Some people eat the meats as they are while others put them atop their rice for the appearance of a more "complete" meal. Most people tend to advise that you hold off on the rice until later on, as it makes people full and thus ruins the dining experience. A few of the restaurant reviews I've read advise diners to skip the seafood, as its often frozen before it's brought to the table, robbing it of its flavour once it's cooked.
So you're paying people so that you can cook food yourself? Couldn't you do that at home?
Yes, and that's a valid point, but there are four operative words here: all you can eat. Would you really get the chance to keep asking for uncooked meat at home?
The other allure, of course, is how inexpensive these places can be. When I first explained the concept to my dad, he asked whether a restaurant that has you cook your own food pays you to do it. The answer is no, but nonetheless. Many restaurants feature dirt cheap lunch specials during certain times of the day -- when the all you can eat dinners can run for about $8 or $9 (CAD) per person. A local restaurant guide even referred to a Toronto Korean Grillhouse restaurant as "cheap-as-borscht."
After downing I-don't-even-want-to-know-how-much meat, veggies and tofu with a friend of mine this past spring, we both sat and stared, dumbfounded at the bill. The entire meal, including drinks, taxes and a handsome tip came to just under $20. After shelling out the money, my friend said "Let's get out of here before they realize just how badly they're getting ripped off."
So how did this start, anyway?
Near as I can figure, the practice of cooking one's own food at the table over a grill comes straight from Korea and is a practice at many traditional Korean restaurants. The meats are cooked over a charcoal grill placed in the middle of the table, while rice and vegetable dishes are served in smaller dishes (sound familiar?). The Korean dish known as bulgogi consists of meats cooked over a grill.
How and when such practices began to become popular in other parts of the world is up for debate. Some sources suggest that they've become popular in areas with large Korean populations. Others point out that the foods served at such places is not Korean in the traditional sense, but is rather a sort of North Americanized offering (like how "Chinese food" isn't really authentic cuisine from China). The only things these people consider "Korean" about the restaurants is that they use the traditional Korean method of grilling food in the middle of the table (though the charcoal restaurants of old have been replaced with gas-powered grills in some cases) and the practice of serving vegetables, rice and soup in smaller bowls.
In Toronto, at least, there seems to be no real pattern in terms of their locations -- they're just popping up everywhere. There are three within walking distance of my old stomping grounds alone.
In any case, it's a good lot of food for a small amount of coin. Yum.
says re Korean barbecue: Here in the U.S., Chinese "all you can eat" buffets are sprouting like dandelions on the lawn of an empty house. Now, in New York (where the only decent ones are) the prices are still very high. The best ones still bring wood coals out in a metal box, instead of using the gas grill. The appetizers in the small dishes are called "ban chuan
." As pristine and delightful as the beef served in my favorite Korean places is, I still can't get over the fact that dinner for four, with drinks, comes to about USD$150 and I end up going into the bathroom to wash my face and eyeglasses and can't wait to get the grill/grease-smelling shirt off of my back when I reach home. One last thing, have you ever had Ginro
, the Korean alcoholic beverage of choice with bulgogi?
libertas says I have never had Ginro and I have certainly never paid upwards of $35 per person (I think a friend and I missed the all you can eat lunch special by a few minutes once and had to pay $12 each) at a Korean barbecue restaurant. It sounds as though the Korean establishments of which you speak are somewhat more high class than the ones I'm detailing in this writeup; the places I've been to definitely have a fast food dynamic about them, save for the fact that dinner takes several hours and is, one hopes, marginally more healthy. I have never been to a restaurant that uses wood or charcoal as opposed to a gas grill, which I imagine is also one of the many factors that adds to the price.
Domin says re: Korean Barbecue - As a person who has eaten at Korean barbecue places in the US (Atlanta, which admittedly has a HUGE Korean population) and now lives in Korea I have to say that the restaurants I went to in the States were all pretty faithful to what you get here. The only difference I have really noticed is that almost all places here use coal, not gas, to cook the meat, as oppossed to in the States, or in your case, in Canada. As well, you tend to get the little fish with their heads and innards still intact less often. I still can't eat them here and that probably helps explain why you don't see them much over there. Anyway, all said and done it costs about the same here, bulgogi is about 6 to 10 thousand won for a person, or 6$ to 10$ US equivalent spending power.
libertas says I find it fascinating that some of these places adapt to the local tastes so well. While out with three friends just this past week, the server asked us whether we really wanted the raw liver -- she says it's usually only people who have lived in Korea who bother to cook it up. I've been to a handful of these in Toronto and have never seen one with a coal grill. Given how large some of these places are, I'd imagine it would get extremely expensive (and draw the ire of at least one environmentalist) to use so much coal.
RPGeek says re Korean barbecue: The only Korean barbecue restaurant I've been to here in Vancouver is actually a combination Korean barbecue/sushi restaurant. It's more expensive as a result ($12 for lunch and $20 for dinner) but really is the best quality all-you-can-eat experience I've had here. Given the sushi-orientation of most Vancouverites it tends to be a sushi lunch that happens to include Korean BBQ and not vice versa, but it certainly is a good meal despite that. (Disclaimer: I don't eat red meat or poultry so I haven't really had much of their Korean BBQ...)
libertas says Most of the Korean barbecue restaurants I've been to also tend to incorporate some kind of fusion/other pan-Asian foods into their menus. The a la carte menu at my favourites tend to offer bento boxes and teriyaki meals, though I can't say I've ever been to a place that offers sushi. Toronto also has a huge sushi culture (my favourite example is near Bloor and Bathurst, where two competing sushi restaurants co-exist side-by-side and both earn enough business to survive and do quite well.