Good Korean barbecue in Iowa – a phrase so fiery and dangerous that it could pass for the food Korean BBQ Restaurant serves up in Iowa City. This restaurant is so good that I’ve visited it three years in a row as an annual tradition. I’ve always walked away with a full stomach, a trunk full of genuine Korean snacks from the market next door and sweat on my brow. I think back fondly on how it all began: a simple wish that somewhere, somehow, I would find food in this state that could sear my tongue. And so began my great adventure into the wild unknown, my brother and best friend in the backseat and a flavorful future ahead.
Exuberant, hungry and for some godforsaken reason eating dinner at three in the afternoon, we walked into the restaurant as a band of pioneers, each ready to delve into the depths of our discovery. A small bridge offered us safe passage across the koi pond below, the fish as eager to suck up our toes as we were to throw them onto the nearest griddle. We crossed the bridge safely and into friendly territory, our haste evident by the thuds we made on the hardwood below. The owners beamed after my friend greeted them with a quick hello in Korean and we were seated inside a booth. As is tradition in Korean BBQ Restaurant, each table was already set up with gas-powered griddles, waiting for us to flip the switch and start cooking choice meats upon them.
If you’re not a fan of cooking your own food, there are pre-cooked meals available and I’ve heard that the sushi is phenomenal. But, if you yearn for greater sport, the delight of having full control of your meal without dishes or kitchen preparation… take my hand and read further.
Our waitress came to the table with an assortment of side dishes. Kimchi, a traditional Korean side dish, is a spicy fermented cabbage that blended exquisitely with the potato salad served on the side, all washed down with a large bowl of miso soup. Before handing us the plates of meat we were meant to cook, the waitress presented us with the very same food our food once ate: a salad. I’m not typically a fan of salads, but this particular one was lightly seasoned enough to pique my appetite for what came next.
Several loud thunks sounded next to me. Each plate of meat had been set down, and I was too transfixed on the grill to notice. I had to turn it on, make it roar with a beautiful flame. I turned the heat dial. After a couple puttering noises from the grill, the flame underneath burst into life. It was time. Our first course was Samgyeopsal: thick pork belly slices seasoned with roasted garlic on the side. The meat crackled and sputtered grease each and every way, making us duck and weave for the delicacy. The taste of roasted garlic melded together with the rich taste of pork on my taste buds, but quick as I could blink the meat was already gone. Fire chicken sat ready and waiting, so our mourning period lasted about as long as it took to put the next pan on the griddle.
Once on, the pan began to simmer with a tangy, tear-inducing aroma. Unlike Carol from those old chemistry posters, we knew the danger and wafted the smell until the broth came to a low simmer. I reached down with my chopsticks and brought the first morsel to my lips. What followed next was a slow, steady spice that began to burn like a volcano after two plates. As some may know, I have little credibility for an accurate spiciness range. So don’t take it from me, but listen to my Korean food guru Sam Han (’17), who guided me on this spiritual journey. After three spice-laden plates of fiery chicken, he imparted his wisdom upon me: “The raw heat in my mouth post-fire chicken is enough to make Supa Hot Fyah Jelly,” he said. “I’m not a rapper.”
— Photo by Jeff Li