Don’t come to Jang Ta Bal for a quiet night. That’s what Chris Chang, the owner, tells us. It’s 4pm and we’re sitting at his new three-level CBD Korean barbeque joint (he’s got restaurants in Campsie and Strathfield too) and it’s calm. Later, when we’ve finished chatting and eating, there’s a queue. Each table has a flaming grill and more empty cans of beer than people. The noise level is similar to a house party that’s warming up.
Jay Jo, the manager, asks us if we’ve visited the top floor. We go up and the vibe is like a house party at about 11pm. There are disco lights and Korean party DJs on the stereo, and everyone’s had enough drinks to forget the normal decibel range for speaking.
People aren’t here just to party though. They’ve got plates of raw crab doused in chilli paste, enormous kimchi pancakes, and, most importantly, beef cuts so marbled they look like they’ve been struck by fat lightning. (Others cuts aren’t so luxuriously marbled, but that’s fine because they’re cheaper.) There’s also tongue, pre-marinated bulgogi (thinly sliced beef), brisket, fat strips of pork belly, sirloin and scotch fillet. You cook it all yourself, of course, then eat it with ssamjang (a mix of fermented soybean and chilli paste), lettuce and raw garlic.
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It’s an intense culinary experience, which is why the meal is best finished with a bowl of refreshing cold noodles. “A popular saying in Korea is meat first, noodles last. We have cold buckwheat noodle soup just to clean it all up,” says Chang.
Most important for Chang: everything should be cooked over charcoal. “Meat can be cooked on anything, but charcoal is the best,” he says. “It gives a different taste. Even from day one, the idea was always charcoal. No compromise.”
DIY charcoal barbeques aren’t unusual these days, but nine years ago, when Jang Ta Bal first opened in Strathfield, it was a revelation. It served up loud music, cheap drinks, affordable Wagyu and charcoal barbeques on every table. No diner escaped the smokey dining room without smelling like, well, a barbeque.
There wasn’t anything like it in Sydney, and it was packed from day one. “We were shocked most of the customers didn't mind it. It came to characterise us,” says Chang.
The three Jang Ta Bal outposts have the same menu but offer markedly different experiences. Strathfield is the loosest and youngest – go here for a big night, but only if you don’t care about smoky-smelling clothing. Campsie is a quieter and older affair, like the rural barbeques in Korea – take your family here. And then there’s the CBD, which is newer, flashier and falls somewhere in between the other two. Unless you go upstairs.
Jang Ta Bal
CBD 73-75 Liverpool Street, Sydney
Strathfield 48A The Boulevarde, Strathfield
This is another edition of Broadsheet’s “Local Knowledge” weekly series, where Nick Jordan explores the eateries at the heart of Sydney’s different cultural communities. Read more here.