Fun with Korean barbecue

January 22, 1998|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If you're a fan of barbecue, you owe it to yourself to try it Korean-style at Joung Kak, where the meat is cooked on a smoldering caldron set smack into the center of your table.

Owned by Jong Keun Ham, Joung Kak stays open until the early-morning hours serving Korean, Japanese and Chinese dishes. Its forte, though, is Korean barbecue. Half the restaurant is set up for table-top grilling, with individual steel exhaust hoods mounted overhead.

Ask for one of those barbecue tables, and enjoy the show. Soon after we ordered, a delicate-looking waitress amazed us by carrying an iron pot full of burning wood coals to our table (with the help of a set of long tongs). The pot looked heavy. It looked hot. Plunk it went into the round cavity in our table and was quickly topped by a brass grill cover, full of holes.

While the grill was heating, our waitress brought us lots of little bowls: rice, salads, sauces and vegetables -- a dozen tiny accompaniments to the two barbecue dishes we had ordered. Then came the marinated meat: raw sirloin, sliced exquisitely thin, and two racks of short ribs. The waitress cut the meat off the bones in front of us with a pair of jumbo shears.

Half the sirloin was cooked first, followed by the rib meat and then the rest of the sirloin. Though we tried to help, our waitress did most of the work during periodic stops at our table.

After receiving some instruction, we wrapped slivers of cooked beef in curly lettuce leaves, layered with soybean sauce, raw garlic, shredded scallions and sliced jalapenos. The meat was fabulous. Sweet. Smoky. Tender. We even liked the robust flavors of the accompanying raw garlic and chili. But you can tame them a bit by grilling them alongside the meat.

This communal meal was a fun way to eat. We took turns lifting meat off the grill with chopsticks and passing around bowls of spicy pickled kimchi, young spinach leaves with red chili dressing, sweet and sour radish, stir-fried seaweed, bean sprouts in sesame oil and fried tofu.

Our two barbecue dishes were enough for four to share, but we also sampled a gigantic seafood pancake (chewy squid, shrimp and whole scallions encased in a battered disk the size of a pizza), and a spicy "hot pot" soup (made with the freshest codfish steaks, cabbage, zucchini and chunks of creamy tofu).

We liked the tempura coating on a fried squid appetizer, but the pieces were a bit too tough. Fried dumplings, filled with seasoned pork and bean threads, and a dumpling soup, in a fragrant broth with sliced beef and egg, were both better starters.

The menu at Joung Kak can be dizzying. There's a full page of sushi, loads of lunch specials, Chinese and Japanese dishes, plus dozens of Korean specialties. Some, like the cabbage-wrapped oyster and pork, sounded intriguing. Others, cold pigs' feet and barbecued beef heart in particular, might appeal to more adventurous palates.

We'll definitely be back for another group barbecue, though. It was the most fun we've had eating in a long time.

Joung Kak

Address: 18 W. 20 St.

410-837-5231

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $1.50-$9.95; entrees, $7.95-$29.95

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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