Long before snags and steaks (not to mention the occasional prawn) were being grilled on backyard barbecues across Australia, the wise and well-fed people of Korea were practicing the art of gogigui, known to us here simply as Korean barbecue.
Unlike other restaurants, where the food is cooked behind closed doors, at a Korean barbecue the grill is at your table and the food of your choice is cooked before your eyes by either the wait staff or your humble self. The result is a genuinely electric atmosphere – someone is always laughing over the sound of sizzling meat, the room is filled with that incredible smoky smell and soju or makgeolli (types of rice-based alcohol – a wine and sweet milky beverage respectively) is always being poured.
When it’s just too cold to light up the old backyard barbecue, there’s no need to forgo your fix of smoky, grilled meats altogether. Here are five of our favourite barbecue joints where you can keep warm and do it yourself, Korean-style.
Dae Jang Geum Korean BBQ
235 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne
(03) 9662 9445
Hike upstairs and find Dae Jang Geum, a cavernous space that lies extremely well hidden above the cheap dumpling houses of Chinatown. Spread out over two levels, Dae Jang Geum represents the archetype of what Korean barbecue is all about: no fuss, cold soju, a low din of fellow diners and seating as plentiful as the thinly sliced brisket. Don’t fret if the waitresses require a reminder for the beer you ordered 10 minutes ago, they have a lot to attend to and there is plenty of sizzling meat for you to keep an eye on while you wait.
323 Victoria Street, Abbotsford
Seoul Soul is about as authentic a Korean barbecue as you can get off of the Korean peninsula. A cult favourite tucked away amongst the pho spots and banh mi bakeries of Victoria Street, it serves up not only the traditional bulgogi (marinated beef), but also their own take on tapas, with bite-sized dumplings and grilled prawns. The space, designed by former architect-turned-owner Insu Kim, is divided into two sections, each affording a different experience. The bar and grill outside offers a hawker-style street food vibe, while the inside presents a more modern dining feel, with two large communal grills taking up the space with white tiles all around.
276 Victoria Street, North Melbourne
Just opposite the Queen Victoria Market on Victoria Street, there is a little block of restaurants that has become the centre of Melbourne’s gogigui scene. If you can’t make up your mind for which to choose, Donworri is your best bet. You’ll find no gas cookers here, with all authentic hot coals grilling the meat, which results in the entire restaurant filled with a light smoky smell, present from the moment you walk in the door. If you are dining with a vegetarian, order a pot of warming Doenjang Jjigae (soybean paste stew, made from tofu, rice and an assortment of vegetables) to bubble away beside your table. The mix of smells from all the different hot plates is an experience in itself.
70 Little La Trobe Street, Melbourne
After entering through Chang Go’s medieval doors and finding your place amongst the all-wood interior, say these words and let yourself be taken to the kingdom of pork: ‘Eight Flavour BBQ Pork Belly’. This bad boy is exactly what it sounds like: eight different types of pork including miso, wine, ginseng and garlic. To find out the others it is recommended you go there yourself and take the ride. If you are wondering if they only do the eight-flavour set with pork, fear not, beef and vegetables are available as well.
G2 Korean BBQ
301 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne
(03) 9642 3424
Careful where you step in G2 – you may get in the path of a gentleman running around carrying a pot of hot coals. Unlike a lot of the other Korean barbecues around, which use gas to power their grills, G2 is old-school, with the hot coals being replaced every time a new patron sits down to enjoy a fresh cut of meat. Copper exhaust fans hanging over the grills coupled with leather benches give the place a decidedly steam-punk feel. The mushroom platter, which features the biggest of the big fungi to the smallest, is the standout here, giving the vegetarians amongst us an alternative to the ever popular kimchi pancake.