How to Master AYCE Korean BBQ (Sort Of)

In Southern California, all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue has become an epidemic outside of Koreatown. KBBQ chain Gen Korean BBQ is popping up everywhere, but that isn’t phasing favorites like Moodaepo BBQ and Mr BBQ.

But why? Well, for starters, KBBQ is amazing.

Peace, love and brisket. Photo by me

There’s an unexplained thrill when sitting down for an AYCE KBBQ feast. You’re excited, nervous, hangry — you name it, you’re feeling it. It’s a peculiar sensation; it’s almost as if our bodies are sending out troops to the defense lines. Our bodies know. Meat is upon us.

Everyone has their own way of eating KBBQ. Some people go for steamed egg while others go for the tofu soup. Some people love to enjoy their meat with some soju while others will stay true to good ol’ water.

Aside from being politically correct with Korean table manners, the only way to master AYCE KBBQ is to eat to your liking. A trip to your favorite KBBQ joint is only as good as you make it. Once you find a consistent groove, every KBBQ experience will be just as enjoyable as the next one.

With too many KBBQ joints in Southern California to count, now’s as good a time as any to compile some tips to enhance your gluttonous KBBQ meals to come. Take these with a grain of salt (or not); I’m not a leading expert in AYCE Korean meat. Like I said, the only way to really enjoy AYCE KBBQ is your way. These tips just happen to work for me.

The Three B’s: brisket, bulgogi and belly.

Some beef bulgogi from Moodaepo BBQ in Rowland Heights, California. Photo by me

Brisket, bulgogi and belly form the ultimate trio. I consider them as the unofficial AYCE KBBQ meaty trinity. No AYCE session is complete without these three.

Brisket is the blandest of the three, but its lean texture makes it an automatic staple when eating KBBQ. Not choosing brisket would be a sin, especially when the KBBQ joint serves well-balanced slices of brisket (not too fatty, not too lean).

Beef bulgogi counters the brisket thanks to its sweetness from the marinade. The only downside to bulgogi is that marinades sometimes vary at restaurants. Rest assured, meat lovers are in for a sweet treat with this one.

Belly (the pork kind, mind you) is the outlier of the group. Some people usually stick to the top two as their meat bases. But pork belly has the perfect meaty-to-fatty balance that doesn’t grow tiring, especially when  KBBQ places offer different variants of it. (I suggest red wine pork belly when available.)

Know the meat quality.

The novice carnivore won’t notice fresh meat from frozen meat. Hell, I have a hard time distinguishing both. But it’s important to realize that meat quality is a thing.

A friend of mine tends to ask her server how the restaurant serves their meat. It’s sort of an oddball that’s thrown at the server, but a restaurant passes her test if the server states that they slice the meat onsite, not cut it. If the restaurant cuts the meat, chances are they serve frozen meat.

If you would rather keep the awkwardness between you and the server at a minimum, I would order the meat and observe its freshness once it’s served. Consider the frozen meat you may find at fast-food Mongolian barbecue places as the absolute minimum; the more similar it is, the worse it is.

Banchan makes your food exciting.

Barchan makes the world go round. Photo by me

Whatever banchan ends up on your table should not be ignored. These side dishes are meant to be paired with your favorite meats, so why skip them? Plus, they’re included in the bill, so feel free to ask for seconds. Or thirds.

Change your grill. Seriously.

During my first few KBBQ experiences, my grill would always go past the point of no return. I didn’t think twice about it the first couple of times until I realized it totally changes the flavor of the meat.

Change your grill often. Keep the flavors of the meat as fresh as possible. Last thing you need is remnants of meat marinade mixing with a different marinated meat.

This brings me to my next point…

Don’t overcrowd the grill.

Let your meat breathe. Photo by me

To me, it’s sort of strange to have a serving of red wine pork belly and a serving of beef bulgogi on the same grill. Both produce juices that may seep into each other. By the time both are done cooking, the meats will end up tasting the same.

Try not to overcrowd the grill, especially with different kinds of flavored meats. I try to grill “dry” meats with other “dry” meats. If necessary, I’ll try to add marinated meats when there’s a generous amount of room on the grill. That way, none of it’s juices will seep into other meats. I also try to avoid putting two “wet” meats on the grill at the same time.

Plus, having too much meat on the grill will slow down the cooking time. Why prolong the meat?

Get rice or rice paper.

I have a love-hate relationship with carbs just as much as the next guy, but with KBBQ, you just have to. I stick to rice paper, but rice (extra points if it’s in a stone pot!) is just as good. Let all the meat juices soak in the rice. It’s so good.

If you’re against rice, come on. Live a little.

Keep the water coming.

Whether you decide to order a drink (soju is a must) or not, water must find its way on the table. Water is your friend. Keep the water flowing through the system. It’ll help you make some more room for meat.

Got any additional tips? Share them in the comments below!

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