Is it possible to serve a good barbecue in Seoul? It was summer of 1998 when I had my first ‘Q’ in College Station, TX. My first ever overseas trip. The server stacked some ribs on the brown wax paper on the table, with some Texas white toast bread(just a really thick toast-about an inch?With tight crumbs) and no utensils. It was very much of a culture shock. I can no longer keep the clear picture of the flavor, but I still remember the moment of understanding when the food was delivered in front of me: this food is the reincarnation of the vastness of this country. The highway, empty space, the pasture… and the cows for sure. All the vastness I had witnessed during the trip condensed into one meal, or the format of it rather. I realized that the core concept of terroir in US might be more on the the atmosphere and the attitude generated from the vastness, not the ingredients or cooking method.
Oh, and the vastness actually affects the practical aspect of the barbecue cooking as well. The essence of the cooking is to break the connective tissues down very slowly with low but stable dry heat. The best method to build the pit-a kind of huge brick oven. Not an apparatus, but the space. In the city where you are always challenged in space, the pit is not the feasible option and Seoul is no exception. You can always resort to a smoker, the ones the diehard barbecue fanatics attach to the tail of their pickup truck, but I believe mobility is prioritized over the efficiency for the smoker. In other words, a pit is always the better option wherever the circumstance allows.
Having said that, the barbecue of Manimal Smokehouse in Itaewon leaves very promising first impression. More than anything, I like their vision: it seems that they understand the essence of the barbecue, and the texture is the proof. I sampled everything except the chicken, which I don’t really care for, and the texture was the first thing comes out. All the cuts are reasonably tender, meaning that they taste like something slowly cooked for a long period of time. Even the pulled pork, the mostly likely candidate suffered by dryness, was very moist and porky enough(even though I suspect the steam oven at the kitchen offers some help). And the rib is cooked true to the cliche-falling off the bone(but only when you bite into it) and proper bark. Ditto for the brisket, but I believe they should be sliced more thinly, about the half of the presented, especially with the fat layer in the middle. Even the breads support the overall textual experience: with very appealing brown and shiny top, the roll has one of the best crumb I have tasted here in Korea. It is tender but also has structure often the cheap and poorly made ones miss. And with the crackly crust and crumbly interior, the cornbread is easily the best component of the entire meal. Overall, they are very powerful support tandem cast.
While the texture side of the food is promising, the taste lacks balance. Interestingly, they are missing the same elements other Korean food is missing: salt and acid, with slightly excessive spiciness. With the method that cooks big mass of the meat intact, barbecue never get the chance to get season properly, meaning to the very center of the ingredients. To complement, the sauce is needed and more often than not vinegar is used as a base to cut the fat. Two kinds of sauces are presented, but neither of them have enough acid or salt to balance everything out. With the pronounced spiciness, the overall taste seems to be on the verge of same territory of typical Korean-Western food. The coleslaw has meaningful tanginess to it, but it wasn’t enough and untamed crunch of thecabbage behave as hinderance. In other words, they need to refine it a little more.
And lastly: I really do not recognize the smoke that much, but I will just leave it at that for now.
Walking down the hill of Itaewon after finishing the meal, I thought about the meaning of the barbecue in Seoul. There was a family consist of two or three generations in the restaurant, and they made me think that this can be the meaningful alternative eating format of meat. Can it be more comfortable to just eat, not cooking on the table for yourself with scorching fire? And the meat will always be overcooked in that miniature hellfire on the table. And it is not really the unfamiliar format as family restaurants have put ribs on the menu for a while(Yes, they are on demise. Sorry). It can be more promising-if they refine their vision a bit more.
*Beers: why they taste very much same everywhere? They start off at different flavor spot, but falls on same cliff way faster than I hope. What does this pattern imply?