Your guide to trying out Korean BBQ in Seoul

Think you know Korean BBQ? We ask and expert about the most authentic ways to enjoy this meal in the South Korean capital.

Two people toast two glasses of 'soju' over a Korean BBQ feast.
  • Paul Ewart
  • September 2019

Succulent, juicy and cooked to perfection; each bite-size portion of meat I take from the open-air grill seems to grow tastier and tastier. With fat and sauce running down my chin, I involuntarily grin. I’ve abandoned everything I know about dining etiquette and I don’t care because I’m happily lost – and a little heady – in a meat-lover’s paradise.

If you’re a hungry carnivore then it would be a heinous culinary crime to visit Seoul and not partake in this taste sensation. Known locally as gogi gui, which refers to the method of grilling meat on gas or charcoal grills inlaid into dining tables, Korean BBQ is probably the nation’s biggest foodie export. And why not? It’s fun, social, and seriously yummy. So it’s no wonder locals will take any excuse to head to a barbecue restaurant.

But as a foreign first-timer to the city, it can be a daunting task to choose from the staggering number of “meat houses” that sit on almost every corner. Thankfully, I planned ahead and booked myself on ZenKimchi’s Ultimate Korean BBQ Night Out tour opens in new window. The AUD $167 is worth it for the smug feeling you’ll derive knowing that you escaped a touristy trap restaurant and are instead rubbing shoulders with genuine locals in a super-authentic BBQ joint.

A group of people hold glasses of beer at a Korean BBQ restaurant.
Beer and local spirit 'soju' are an essential part of the Korean BBQ experience.

Launching one of the country’s first English language food blogs 15 years ago, ZenKimchi founder – and my tour guide for the evening – American-born Joe McPherson has scoured the length and breadth of Seoul for BBQ perfection since arriving in South Korea from his native Alabama and has shared his findings with foodie luminaries, including the late, great Anthony Bourdain. So I know I’m in good hands. And while there’s a glut of options available, it turns out that not all of these eateries are made equal. Far from it, in fact.

“If anyone is coming to Seoul for a night or two, I take them to my favourite restaurant in Mapo,” Joe says. “Out of all districts in the city, Mapo is the best-known for BBQ. Mapo-style means charcoal-grilled pork, aged kimchi, and a raucous atmosphere.” Upon arriving in the district, this claim to fame instantly becomes apparent with block upon block of neon-lit grill houses. And Joe’s favourite eatery is clearly very popular. Once seated, I’m told that the first and most important task is to choose the kind of meat you want.

A Korean BBQ feast at a Seoul restaurant.
ZenKimchi's Korean BBQ tour avoids the tourist traps to keep things authentic.

“Even though beef is most associated with Korean BBQ, it’s not as common in Korea itself because it’s so pricey,” explains Joe. “Here, pork is king – especially samgyeopsal (sliced pork belly). A lot of newbies go for galbi (short ribs) and marinated meats. I call this ‘tourist food’. The best meats are fresh and unadorned with anything. This way you can’t hide bad meat behind sweet marinades.”

After the pork belly arrives, my first stumbling block is expecting it to be cut up ready for grilling. In an authentic BBQ joint not only do you grill the meat yourself, you also carve it up. It’s DIY all the way. And don’t go searching for the knife like I did. In Seoul, scissors are used to turn meat into bite-size portions. As I attempt to grill like a boss, I quickly realise that a career as a burger flipper at McDonald’s probably isn’t for me. My lacklustre attempts draw assistance from a nearby server who deftly flips each piece in seconds, ensuring it cooks just right. Joe informs me that burning the meat is the biggest mistake BBQ rookies make.

A woman serves herself food at a Korean BBQ restaurant in Seoul.
The Mapo district in Seoul is famous for its Korean BBQ.

Next, sides, or banchan, arrive. These vegie dishes usually include seasoned green onion, bean sprouts and, of course, kimchi. Speaking of kimchi, given that it has been a fixture in my fridge for years, I make an astonishing discovery when watching my fellow diners: kimchi can not only be grilled, but it tastes way better warm. Who knew?

One of the best ways to eat the finished product is san choy bow-style in a lettuce wrap. I take pieces of the pork belly and place it on the leaf with one hand, before adding some ssamjang sauce (a mixture of soybean paste and red pepper paste) and the banchan on top. Delicious. Within mere minutes I’m rolling my next one, which turns out to be a good idea, as I need some hearty fare to soak up the accompanying local booze.

I learn early on that beer and local spirit soju are essential components of the overall BBQ experience. Indeed, the consumption of both continues when we leave to head to our next stop: a Korean pub that has shades of a no-frills Japanese izakaya.

A woman serves herself kimchi at a Korean BBQ restaurant in Seoul.
The succulent meat is eaten with sides such as vegetables and kimchi.

While we only linger for another few hours (well past the three hours allocated to our tour!) it occurs to me just how easily it would be to continue the revelry till dawn. Handily, most BBQ restaurants remain open into the wee hours and some never close, meaning that you can end a night out with a sumptuous 2am meat-feast. A late-night kebab or pizza back home will never appeal the same again!

Handy hints, wear comfortable shoes as there is some walking involved; arrive hungry as there’s plenty to eat; and don’t plan anything too early the next day – if drinking soju, you may wake up feeling dusty!