The Dos and Don’ts of Eating at an Authentic Korean BBQ Restaurant

The Dos and Don’ts of Eating at an Authentic Korean BBQ Restaurant

Enjoy Korean BBQ like a pro!

You may think that Korean BBQ is nothing more than a meal but it’s so much more than that. It is a treat, a euphoric experience that stimulates all the senses!  First, you see with your eyes the dishes laid out before you in a kaleidoscopic spread of colours and flavours. And then, you hear the mouthwatering sizzle as the meat meets the searing hot grill. As it cooks, you are assailed by a plethora of appetising aromas. 

Then comes the excitement of assembling your lettuce wrap, feeling the weight increase as you fill it up with various ingredients. And finally, the taste: a mixture of succulent meat, crunchy lettuce, and savoury banchan dancing on your palate. Oh, just thinking about it makes my mouth water! 

TL;DR: Nothing beats a good Korean BBQ. That is one of the few universal truths in life that I religiously believe in. While Korean BBQ restaurants are pretty popular throughout Asia in general, having eaten at an authentic BBQ joint in Korea (black pork BBQ in Jeju!), I realise there are some subtle differences between the two. 

As you might expect, eating at a BBQ restaurant in Korea is quite a different experience. So, in order to make sure you don’t accidentally embarrass yourself in front of any potential oppa candidates, here’s a list of dos and don’ts when eating at a Korean BBQ restaurant! 

Also read: All the Dos and Don’ts in South Korea That Locals Wish You Knew!

The don’ts

1. Immediately grilling the meat once the grill is hot is a big no-no

I know, I know, the main star of a Korean BBQ is the meat. So, obviously when the grill is hot, we’ll be tempted to start dumping the meat on the hot grill. But that’s not the right way! Before you start grilling that juicy marinated beef ribs or pork belly, rub an onion over the grill. 

This helps to spread any oil that is on the grill evenly so that the meat won’t stick once it hits the grill. Another mistake some people make is using the grill only for meat. More often than not, your banchan will come with some raw vegetables (not the lettuce!) or mushrooms. If that’s the case, you should first grill those vegetables because they actually take a longer time to cook! 

2. Do not over flip your meat but make sure it is sufficiently cooked!

Even though there are some BBQ restaurants in Korea where the servers will cook and flip the meat for you, in most cases, you’ll have to do it yourself. In this case, it’s important to know how to cook your meat properly. To do that, one important thing to remember is to resist the temptation of over flipping your meat. 

Basically, you shouldn’t be tossing the meat all over the grill like it’s egg fried rice. The rule of thumb is to flip it only once or twice to ensure the best results. Look for juices that escape the top of the meat as it’s grilled. Once it pools, flip it over and leave it be! Flip again after two minutes (or more, depending on the thickness of the cut) to check and that should be it. However, do ensure that the meat is thoroughly cooked! 

3. Please don’t overload your lettuce wrap

One of the most uncomfortable, nay, harrowing things I’ve witnessed during a Korean BBQ was during a meal I shared with a friend in the U.K. It was his first time and I had neglected to teach him the “proper” way to prepare ssam (lettuce wrap). I watched in horror as he stuffed his lettuce with meat and kimchi, rolled it up horizontally like a grease-soaked taco, and then sunk his teeth into it.

As you might have guessed, that’s NOT how you do it. Here’s the proper way: one lettuce + one perilla leaf (if provided), a small/medium size of meat, one or two banchan (I recommend kimchi), and some sauce. Ideally, you should be able to finish your wrap in one or two bites. If you feel the need to shove the lettuce into your mouth, you’re probably putting a little too much on your lettuce. Oh! And use your hands! Korean BBQ is not the type of meal you enjoy whilst looking prim and proper!

4. Don’t slather your lettuce wrap with sauce either!

One thing you’ll notice about Korean BBQ is that you’ll have quite the assortment of sauces at your table. The most common are sesame oil dipping sauce and savoury doenjang (soybean paste) sauce. Just like with sushi, you’re supposed to only apply a delicate amount of the sauce to your lettuce wrap (either on the bottom of the leaf or on the meat). Do NOT smother your wrap with spoonfuls of sauce!

5. Do not pile banchan on your plate

Apart from the variety of sauces, you’ll also have plenty of banchan to choose from. For those not in the know, banchan are basically traditional Korean side dishes. They usually consist of various types of kimchi, pickled vegetables, some soup, and even egg dishes.

These dishes are often laid out before you on your table even before the meat arrives. That’s because you’re supposed to pick on the banchan as you wait for the meat to cook. However, this isn’t a mini buffet! You’re supposed to eat the banchan sparingly before and during the BBQ (with your lettuce wrap), not pile them all on your plate! So don’t do that!

6. Or ignore the side dishes at your table

A polar opposite of the banchan hoarder is that one person who ignores everything on the table except the meat. Sure, I can understand why you might do that, but the thing is, banchan is part of the Korean BBQ experience and it’s there to help make you full! That’s why most restaurants offer free refills! Everything on the table is supposed to be a part of your meal so make sure you don’t skip out on anything!

Fun fact: You can also order rice but remember, it is a banchan, so you’re not obligated to finish it either! Sinful, I know, but the main star is still the meat, so the rice is merely an accompaniment. 

7. You also shouldn’t think that you MUST one-shot your soju

For those of us who drink, nothing completes a Korean BBQ better than a chilled bottle of soju. However, one thing that you should refrain from doing is one-shotting your soju, a mistake I personally made in Jeju (let’s just say I ended the night back in my hostel without knowing exactly how I got back).

Soju is smooth on the throat and has a relatively low proof. The fact that they serve it in cute shot-glasses might also convince you that you need to down it everytime. But the fact is, because soju is so smooth, you can (and should) drink it slowly throughout the meal.

Another way to enjoy alcohol during your meal is to make somaek, the combination of soju and beer (maekju). You can also try makgeolli (Korean rice wine, which is even less strong than soju).

8. Finally, don’t try to order dessert once you’re done!

While you may find some dessert in Korean BBQ restaurants in your country, BBQ joints in Korea often don’t serve dessert. So asking for some after meal delights may just leave you red-faced. However, some restaurants DO occasionally offer fresh fruit (usually watermelon)! Just don’t expect patbingsu or anything similar.

Also read: [Updated 2020] Top Korean Celebrity Restaurants Every Hallyu Fan Must Know!

The dos

Now that we’ve covered what you shouldn’t do when dining at a Korean restaurant, let’s talk about some of the things you SHOULD do.

1. If you’re awkward around metal chopsticks, feel free to ask for wooden ones

Korean chopsticks, especially those used in Korean BBQ restaurants, are usually made of stainless steel and are shaped a little differently. If it’s your first time, they may feel heavy and awkward to grip because of its flat shape. In this instance, don’t be ashamed to ask for wooden chopsticks! They may not always have them, but if they do, the servers will gladly bring you a pair so you can enjoy your meal without having to wrestle your own chopsticks!

2. Feel free to get a banchan refill when you run out

As mentioned above, most restaurants in Korea offer free banchan refills. However, it is often subject to availability. So, for example, if they’ve somehow run out of cabbage kimchi, they may substitute it with radish kimchi instead. So, if your banchan refill looks nothing like the spread you had earlier, don’t be surprised.

Also, some restaurants only refill certain types of banchan for free. Generally, kimchi, pickled vegetables, small plates of beans, and meat are fair game, but dishes like steamed egg or soup usually carry a charge. Check the menu or with the server before asking for more of those!

3. Speaking of banchan, did you know you can (and SHOULD) grill your kimchi?

Personally, I like my Kimchi the way it is: chilled and crunchy. However, when you’re having a Korean BBQ, you should also grill your kimchi (although it’s not a must). Not only does this add a new dimension of flavour to your kimchi, it also makes you look like a real Korean BBQ pro!

4. Do ask for a change of the grill plate when it gets burned out

As any Korean BBQ expert will tell you, the grill plate can sometimes burn out pretty quickly because of the residual marinade and meat juices on it. When this happens, a server usually replaces your grill without asking. However, during peak hours, the servers on duty may be too busy to notice. Simply let them know and they’ll replace your grill with a clean one.

5. Do bring your friends for a more immersive experience

Finally, Korean BBQ is meant to be a warm, noisy, and joyful affair. So if you’re heading out for a Korean BBQ, make sure to invite your friends and go as a group. Trust me, it more than enhances the experience. Just make sure to teach them how to properly enjoy a Korean BBQ. Heck, just show them this article!

Jal meogeseumnida

And there you have it, the basic dos and don’t in a Korean BBQ restaurant that will help you blend right in with local diners. Before you dig into your next meal, just remember to say jal meogeseumnida! That means, “I will eat well”. And when the meal on your table is Korean BBQ, that’s usually how it always ends!

About Author

Darren Yeoh
Darren Yeoh

Darren enjoys the finer things in life and loves exploring unfamiliar places on foot, guided with nothing but instinct and a good-old fashioned map. He enjoys cultural experiences and exciting adventures and is not a stranger to travelling alone. When he's not putting his travel experiences into words, he's probably sitting behind his laptop, planning his upcoming adventure.


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