New York is not a barbecue town. Yet while we don’t do justice to the Southern classic, we do celebrate the commingling of meat and flame with increasingly international zeal. Savvy Gothamites know where to find jerk that could tempt Tosh and versions of sate that would seduce Anna Leonowens. The ‘cue of the moment, though, is Korean, as that cuisine climbs the culinary hit parade. Combining our love of beef with the fun of tabletop cooking, Korean ‘cue palaces with chandelier-lit VIP rooms and 24-hour service are springing up around town to serve aficionados of all classes and nationalities.
I took the Queens College lunch bunch to Flushing’s Kum Gang San to see how they would rate the fare. The shift was changing when we arrived, and as we settled into our table we smugly noticed that we were the only non-Asians in the place. The sushi bar provided the first course: tekka maki and salmon skin roll ($9.95 each) to share. Familiar, fresh, and tasty, it gave us a chance to peruse the menu. The other bar provided chilled bottles of OB beer that mellowed the day out and relaxed us for the trial by fire to come.
Although the menu is large, we removed the insert of lunch specials ranging from $5.95 to $7.95, which accented the slow-cooked over the flame-grilled, and headed straight to the barbecue listing, selecting special kalbi or short ribs ($17.95), bul go ki, rib-eye steak ($15.95), and jae yook gui, pork tenderloin ($14.95). Soon the waiter was back with an array of side dishes including lightly dressed bean sprouts, small clams in a tomato sauce, threads of daikon in a rice-wine vinaigrette, several kinds of kimchee, and a basket of crisp lettuce leaves for wrapping. He placed the griddle over the burner, fired it up with a few garlic cloves to flavor the cooking surface, snipped off the rib bones that are kalbi’s guarantee of authenticity, and began spreading the pieces of marinated beef on the grill. We sampled the condiments as vegetable nibbles, and when the meat was done began slathering and rolling like pros. Resident vacuum cleaner Charlie announced that he would be returning with his family, while Phyllis and I just kept chewing, determining after brief discussion that the special kalbi was more flavorfully toothsome than the bul go ki. Soon it was time for the grill change that accompanies a different meat, but the pork was a bit dry and couldn’t match up to the beef.
I was back a few weeks later to confirm our analysis and test the veggies again. Charlie volunteered to chauffeur. Sushi remained the appetizer of choice, its lightness contrasting with the winter heartiness of the grilled meat, and a culturally incorrect avocado salad ($5.95) of ripe chunks atop a mix of greens provided a suitably unctuous foundation. Soon we were organizing dishes to make room for the condiments, which this time included frizzled scallions in a hot chile marinade and soy-
marinated spinach topped with sesame seeds. Then it was more kalbi and an order of sae woo gui ($16.95) to see how shrimp would fare on the grill. They were fine, but nothing topped the special kalbi. Whether it’s Seoul or soul, the sweetest meat really is closest to the bone.