Though Korean barbecue has existed in the Valley for more than a decade, it’s safe to say this cuisine is having a moment right now. In the past year, two California-based chains, Gen Korean BBQ and Manna BBQ, and the Connecticut-based Seoul BBQ and Sushi, have all set up outposts here. Local chef Hyunwook Lee opened Sizzle Korean Barbecue as well, and signs point to even more Korean barbecue spots popping up in the months ahead. For lovers of bulgogi and banchan, it’s exciting to have more options sprinkled throughout the metro area, not just clustered on Dobson Road. And for those who haven't tried this style of dining, there’s never been a better opportunity. Here’s a quick guide to navigating Phoenix’s growing KBBQ scene.
What is Korean Barbecue?
AT KBBQ restaurants, grills are either inside or on top of tables. At most places, the center of the table holds a gas or charcoal chamber, covered with a removable grate and a vent overhead. Guests choose from a selection of various meats – sometimes all-you-can-eat, sometimes from a set menu – and cook them together, eating food hot off the grill. Popular cuts of meat include bulgogi (thinly sliced, marinated beef loin), samgyeopsal (thick strips of bacon-like pork belly), and galbi (marinated short ribs); but most KBBQ restaurants have a wide selection that can feature intestines, neck, tongue, and much more.
Meats come with an assortment of side dishes, called banchan, those colorful and extremely photogenic small plates you’ll see forming a ring around the grill. Banchan are meant to be shared, and free refills are standard. A common side is large leaves of lettuce or other greens, meant for wrapping meat.
Why It's Great
Few cuisines can compete with KBBQ when it comes to gathering friends or having a party. This kind of meal is nearly impossible to eat alone and difficult even with two, but it's an absolute blast with a big group. The point is to try a lot of different meats, sides, and snacks. A KBBQ meal can also be pretty lengthy, with multiple rounds of ordering and grilling, so it’s an ideal time to relax with friends and hang out for a while. Some restaurants, such as Gen and Manna, have a two-hour dining limit, which can really can fly by.
Drinking is an essential part of KBBQ culture. It’s strongly encouraged to wash the meat down with a few rounds of beer and/or soju, the green bottles of Korean rice liquor. Playing drinking games and cutting loose can be a big part of the appeal, too. KBBQ is just plain fun.
Where to go
For a traditional experience, visit Seoul BBQ and Sushi (11025 North Black Canyon Highway), where even the wooden doors have been imported from Korea to create an old-school ambiance. The restaurant bills itself as a fine dining experience, so you’re more likely to see a wine menu than an AYCE deal here.
Follow the blue lights to the sleek newcomer Gen Korean BBQ (2000 East Rio Salado Parkway #1056, Tempe). The vibe at Gen is modern and energetic, and the menu is AYCE. Take note: there’s a two-hour limit, as well as a charge for any dish you order and don’t finish. It’s a great option for KBBQ veterans who want to gorge on their favorites, but it may not be the best way for novices to ease into trying new foods you’re not sure you’ll like. (More outlandish dishes include baby octopus or daechang, cow intestine).
Another AYCE option is Manna BBQ (1135 Dobson Road, #101, Mesa), which also has a two-hour limit on tables and charges for uneaten meats. This restaurant is smaller and cozier than Gen, with humble red booths instead of flashy lights. Manna offers two levels of AYCE meals. There's a cheaper option for those who are fine with a smaller selection.
It’s basically the same setup at BBQ House (1955 West Guadalupe Road, #105, Mesa): Visitors have two hours to chow down AYCE and pay extra for any meats left on the table. The grills here are interesting, with a rectangular shape and angled sides for a larger cooking surface. Tables can order up to five or more cuts at a time (at most places, only a few are allowed per round). Just be careful not to crowd the grill.
In our experience, the most flavorful and satisfying meats are at Sizzle Korean Barbecue (21001 North Tatum Boulevard, #36). Sizzle is luxurious, with its wood-paneled walls and offerings like wagyu beef and tartare. While most KBBQ restaurants give guests tongs for flipping the meat, Sizzle keeps the grilling tools in the servers’ hands, presumably for quality control.
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Keep an eye out for Han Korean BBQ (1534 West Camelback Road). There’s no word yet on when this new spot will open, but its prime location and bright orange building teasing AYCE meats has us intrigued.
When you go
- Decide what you want as a table. If you go for AYCE or a set menu, every person will pay the same amount, and you’ll order together. Make a plan so that everyone can pick out a dish or two they’d like to try. Consider bringing cash to split the check.
- Let the server cook the meat. Feel free to grab the tongs and flip the pieces occasionally, and definitely move it off to the side if it’s done – but don’t be surprised or offended if the server does most of the grill tending. They’re the pros, after all.
- Ask for a new grate if you need it. It’s normal to change it out a few times during the meal, between different cuts of meat or whenever it starts to look too black and charred.
- Order more than just meat. Try noodles, soups, stews, and other items on the menu. Pass them around the table so everyone can try the many different flavors of Korean cuisine.