The best place to find Korean markets and barbecue restaurants in Colorado must be along South Havana Street in Aurora. There are so many hole-in-the-wall joints with telltale Korean script on the signs in this part of town you can practically smell the kimchi from your car.
After much deliberation and consultation, we chose Seoul BBQ, 2080 S. Havana St., as our entry into Colorado-Korean gastronomy.
The least you need to know about dining at a Korean barbecue restaurant is this: you cook your own meat on a gas grill in the center of the table, the meal is served with a huge variety of banchan or small sides, and the cocktail of choice is soju, the sake-like Korean spirit made from a blend of rice and grain or sweet potato.
The menu at Seoul, and most other Korean restaurants, also includes lots of hot, brothy bowls with meats, vegetables and eggs, and a large selection of appetizers like dumplings and various fried pancakes.
Seoul BBQ is a busy restaurant with rows of shiny black tables each with a gas grill in the center and a buzzer on the wall to summon the wait staff, a handy tool. Servers aren’t at your side every five minutes offering you water or more lettuce wraps, but if you need something, just buzz, and a waiter will be there in seconds.
Korean food is exciting. It’s spicy and aromatic, and interactive – you get to cook it yourself. At Seoul BBQ, servers hustle by your table with multi-tier carts of tiny banchan dishes, steaming hot bowls of bibimbop and huge plates of marinated raw meat ready to be thrown on the grill.
We pored over the huge Seoul menu for what seemed like an hour, sipping plum wine and soju. I chose a barley blend; it was very light, slightly sweet and refreshing between spicy bites.
We tried the leek appetizer, a huge thin and crispy pancake bright green with tender leeks. It was served with no fewer than seven banchan and a mild chili sauce.
We ordered the fresh pork belly and marinated beef short ribs, possibly a mistake. The huge plates of fatty raw meat that rolled up to our table minutes later were heart-stoppers. This is not the kind of food you want to eat more than a few times a year if you know what’s good for your arteries. One of the orders would have been more than enough for the two of us.
We’re not the type of girls to back down from a challenge. As our server laid out another 13 banchan dishes and lit our grill, we looked at each other for encouragement.
The beautiful banchan array included several different types of kimchi, including my favorite, cucumber, steamed squid and seaweed with chili sauce, potatoes and apples in creamy dressing, sweet potatoes in gooey, savory sauce, thin slices of pickled daikon radish, spicy mung bean sprouts, egg custard, tiny dried fish and several other mysterious dishes.
We enjoyed the marinated short ribs more than the fresh bacon. There was so much of it we had to refill our grill three times just to cook it all.
The barbecue was served with shredded scallions in a chili dressing, steamed rice, toasted sesame oil and chili sauce with big green leaf lettuce leaves for wrapping. The crisp leaves and scallions balanced the fattiness of the meat, but at the end of dinner we still wished we’d reconsidered the highly recommended fresh bacon.
Another mistake we made at Seoul BBQ was overlooking the brothy main courses. We watched enviously as the tables around us slurped and spooned their bowls. The main courses are also served with banchan, and are cheaper than the barbecue plates. Next time, we’ll definitely mix it up.