Korean barbecue is always more of a spectacle than sitting down to dinner at most restaurants, but that’s especially true at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong (319 Fifth Avenue, 212-966-9839), the Manhattan outpost of a South Korean chain that already has locations in Flushing, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.
This is the restaurant empire of Korean celebrity Kang Ho-dong, and you’ll find cardboard cutouts of the pop-culture king littered throughout the restaurant. If you don’t notice those right away, however, you’ll be forgiven — there’s a lot going on inside this bi-level space, and wall hangings, even those as odd as celebrity cutouts, fade into the background.
You’ll likely have to wait for a table, and so you should scoot over to the minuscule bar and order a light OB beer, then watch the frenzy. Waiters sport T-shirts with Kang doing some kitschy New York things (climbing the Empire State Building à la King Kong, for one), and they do laps around tables, hauling platters of raw meat and fresh grill pans, which they swap out several times over the course of your dinner. You’ll notice some of them shaking colorful tins with conviction, eventually placing a box of what looks (and, we later learned, tastes) like bibimbap on a table. If it’s someone’s birthday, lights will dim, and the pounding pop music will give way to a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Once you’re seated at a table stocked with kimchi, tofu, and other various banchan (the free sides that come with meals like this), and with scrambled eggs and cheesy corn cooking in little trays around your grill, you’ll stow your coat in a barrel out of the path of the fire, and your server will take your order. The menu is fairly simple, despite the chaos around you. Choose a pork or beef combo (or, if you’re a group, both; we preferred the beef, if you’re not), and then maybe supplement with a lunch box (aforementioned colorful tins) and a stew. And if you forget either, fear not — your server will prod you in the correct direction.
If all this sounds like a recipe for utter confusion, know this: Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong is actually a great Korean barbecue experience for a novice. Your server will cook all of your meat for you, a boon for those of us who aren’t sure how long we should leave the meat on the grill. He or she will also tell you exactly how to eat your strip of ribeye or pork shoulder — in most cases, you should dip it in the salt-spiked oil, then the wasabi-spiced soy sauce, and then have it with a little lettuce or salad.
Some tables rewarded their servers for this guidance with several shots of soju.
Allow at least an hour and a half for the whole experience. And when you totter back onto the New York City streets at the end of the night, full of meat and beer, the Big Apple is going to seem relatively calm.