More fun than a cookout, way more exotic than Pizza Hut: Korean barbecue, the ultimate family fare
Julie Toy
| Credit: Julie Toy

If your family has had its fill of lo mein, dim sum, and fried rice, it may be time to explore the new frontier of Asian cooking: Korean barbecue, sure to please even the finickiest bunch. This delicious (and fun) cuisine features sticky-sweet, soy-based sauces on otherwise unadorned food, as simple as can be.

Not only are the flavors universally appealing, but the process will really wow the kids—and you. Because at a Korean barbecue joint, everyone cooks for themselves, grilling meat, fish, and vegetables right at the table, over gas or live coals, making the meal healthy and supremely engaging. Things happen fast, no one becomes antsy, the atmosphere is charged with excitement (and smoke!), and you get to eat the tasty results on the spot.

Try a few different kinds of barbecue, or bulgogi, such as beef, chicken, shrimp, pork, big shiitake mushrooms, or marinated short ribs taken off the bone (they're sweet, not spicy, so kids love them). Also be sure to sample the obligatory bajon, a mild scallion pancake.

Even if this is all you order, you'll be stunned when, minutes later, your table is filled with a staggering number of banchan, small side dishes, included in the meal. Some banchan, especially the ubiquitous kimchi (cabbage pickled with chilies, ginger, and garlic), will be too hot for your kids. Other items, like the dried anchovies with sesame oil, might look off-putting (they are, after all, wrinkled little fish), but most people find them addictively salty, crisp, mild, and nutty. In the banchan array there's always something that entices: potato salad, spinach with sesame seeds, seaweed with soy, bean sprouts in rice vinegar.

While you're picking at the banchan, your barbecue ingredients are brought to you, along with a pair of tongs and more side dishes, including rice and clear broth. This is when the fun really begins (you'll most likely have to wave off your server, who will try to do some of the grilling for you). There's nothing to it—the thinly sliced meat cooks in seconds right in the center of your table, so you can sit back and supervise as the kids play chef.

Using chopsticks or your fingers, you then fold the meat into a large leaf of romaine lettuce, along with shredded scallions, soy sauce, bean sauce, a bit of rice, and, if you can take it, raw garlic and jalapeños. Then stuff the "sandwich" into your mouth any way you can manage it. Many restaurants don't even bother with plates.

And that's the final reason Korean barbecue is ideal for families: there's no formality. Not only do you get a group-friendly cooking and eating experience, but you can for once forget manners, relax, and let the kids really have it their way.

You can find Korean restaurants in most American cities, and many, though not all, have barbecue. Here, five standouts:

Los Angeles SOOT BULL JEEP, 3136 W. Eighth St.; 213/387-3865; dinner for four $64.

Seattle area OLD VILLAGE KOREAN RESTAURANT, 15200 Aurora Ave. N., Shoreline, Wash.; 206/365-6679; dinner for four $62.

Chicago GARDEN BUFFET, 5347 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773/728-1249; dinner for four $86.

New York KANG SUH, 1250 Broadway; 212/564-6845; dinner for four $76.

Washington, D.C. AREA YECHON, 4121 Hummer Rd., Annandale, Va.; 703/914-4646; dinner for four $68.

And now, some words and phrases you might like to know:

Hello | Annyoung hashimikka
Please | Butak hamnida
Thanks | Kamsa hamnida
Delicious | Massisumnida
We'll be back | Dasi ogessumnida