I never understood the “it’s Memorial Day, we have to barbecue” mindset.
It’s a very Nordic/Midwestern approach to vacation. One that doesn’t make sense in our already swampy heat. That doesn’t mean I don’t like barbecue. I do it a lot. American barbecue, yes, but also grilling traditions from around the world.
My favorite style of “barbecue” arguably comes from Korea, where sizzling meats serve as a beefy excuse to eat bowls and bowls of benchsmall sides of marinated and fermented vegetables — kongnamul muchim, oh muchim, gosari namul – covered with tasty spices.
My favorite Korean barbecue experiences involve bottles of soju, a sea of banchan surrounding a small grill hearth, and a few plates of raw pork belly and beef marbled with fat to spin on said grill. The smoke from the meats being cooked serves as a fragrance, a background smell that permeates and enhances the experience. There should be white rice and kimchi, of course, gochujang and ssamjang, soy sauce sweetened with brown sugar and balanced with tangy vinegar.
The woman who taught me how to enjoy Korean barbecue is Rosa Kim, the owner of Origami in southern Fort Myers. Kim introduced Southwest Florida to the foods of her homeland in 1994. She introduced me to proper Korean barbecue techniques in the late 2000s, a lesson that is still close to my heart.
• Watch out for your meats. Even if a server gets things started, it’s often up to you to monitor and turn the meats to the desired temperature (that’s part of the fun!). You never have to wait for the waiter to come back to take a ready cut off the grill and eat it.
• Eat your banchan now and later. Think of these small plates as free appetizers and sides. They are meant to be nibbled on as soon as they hit the table. And, at most restaurants, banchan refills are endless.
• Scissors on knives. The scissors next to the table grill are there for the meat. Use them to cut and portion cooked beef/pork. It’s so much easier than using a knife.
• This is not a burrito. Lettuce leaves on the table are used to make bite-sized wraps. Layer in meat just off the grill, pour in sauce, scallions, wrap it up and put it in your mouth in one hearty, happy bite. Keep the banchan and the rice as an accompaniment.
• Don’t be afraid of the soju; drink it with caution. The slight sweetness of soju helps balance the spicy and salty flavors of Korean barbecue. The drink is so popular in Korea that it is often less expensive than water — and consumed in similar quantities (soju is the world’s best-selling alcohol). However, be careful. At 20% alcohol by volume, soju sits between wine and liquor in terms of strength.
Where to find Korean BBQ in Fort Myers, Naples
Ember Korean Steakhouse: With one of the widest selections of meats, from Wagyu and filet mignon to galbi and chicken bulgogi, and a helpful staff, Ember makes the Korean barbecue experience deliciously delicious. (7091 College Parkway, south of Fort Myers; 239-771-8818; emberfortmyers.com)
Hot pot and barbecue: Although it has been open for less than a month, this long-awaited spot near Dani Drive in Fort Myers is already garnering rave reviews. Hot Pot offers an all-you-can-eat experience, with buffets of raw ingredients you bring to your table to cook in hot broth or on Korean-style grills. (9345 Six Mile Cypress Parkway, Fort Myers; 239-338-9999)
Origami: The region’s first Korean barbecue restaurant, Origami’s offerings are slightly more limited than Ember’s. But its wealth of beautiful, homemade banchan from scratch is hard to beat. (8911 Daniels Parkway, south of Fort Myers; 239-482-2126; sushiorigami.com)
Seoul Korean Restaurant: The only Korean-only restaurant in Naples, Seoul has a soul. Go for the Korean barbecue tables and the banchan, stay for the mandu, the tteokbokki and some of the best Korean pancakes I’ve had. (5926 First Way, Naples; 239-653-9406; seoulinnaples.com)
Zen Asian BBQ: In addition to traditional Korean barbecue tables, Zen also offers fun cocktails and minced steaks that can be seared on hot stones. (10823 Tamiami Trail N., North Naples; 239-260-7037; Eatatzen.com)
This is the third in my series of stories highlighting Asian foods in Southwest Florida for Asian American Pacific Islander Month. Find my guide to Southeast Asian restaurants here; and click here for some of my favorite ramen spots.