story by MICHELLE LEE
photographs by VICTOR CHU
Since opening its doors in December, Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong in Manhattan’s Koreatown has been inundated by adoring late-night dining crowds and visits from such food world royalty as Anthony Bourdain.
It’s not hard to see why: Baekjeong, or “butcher” in Korean, specializes in Korean barbecue featuring high quality cuts of meat, including beautifully marbled rib eye, short rib and mouthwatering pork belly. Pillows of egg and cheese nest inside the ring, cooking as the meat sizzles and is tended to by a server. A full-service bar offers perfectly chilled soju and specialty drinks such as a melon makgeoli cocktail made with honeydew juice and sweet Korean rice wine.
Baekjeong, open until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 6 a.m. on weekends, is located on the busy corridor of New York City’s West 32nd St. It’s already seeing up to a two-hour wait for tables and is on track to replicate the critical success of the Seoul-based empire’s Los Angeles location (named one of the 101 Best Restaurants of 2014 by Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold) and other branches in Flushing, Queens; Hawaii; and Atlanta.
Its namesake comes from South Korean gagman and former professional wrestler Kang Ho-dong, a colorful television personality whose caricatured image adorns the wood-paneled walls amid a lively, bustling atmosphere. Behind the scenes of Baekjeong’s Manhattan location—which doubles as the chain’s new U.S. flagship—is a triumvirate of New York metropolitan area-born and raised talent. Chef Deuki Hong, 25, trained under Momofuku’s David Chang and French culinary mastermind Jean-Georges Vongerichten and is collaborating with Food Republic contributing editor Matt Rodbard on Koreatown, U.S.A., a cookbook to be published later this year. Co-owners Joe Ko and Bobby Kwak are longtime entrepreneurs who have helped develop the hospitality and nightlight scene of New York City and K-town for over 15 years.
KoreAm sat down with the three-person team to discuss the arrival of Baekjeong in Manhattan and why they consider the restaurant the “Peter Luger’s of Korean barbecue.”
Chadol, or thinly sliced brisket.
As Korean Americans from the greater NYC area, why did you feel a need to open Baekjeong in Manhattan?
Ko: Korean food is all about mahtjips (specialty taste houses), and that’s what we felt was needed in K-town. In Korea, you go to a soondae jip (blood sausage house) for soondae, jjim jip (braised meat house) for jjim. Baekjeong is maht jip for barbecue. A lot of K-town restaurants have menus with over 75 items. Here, we focus on really good barbecue and just three really good jjiggaes (stews)—a beginning-to-end, good quality meal from the banchan (side dishes) to kogi (meat) to jjiggae.
Besides, L.A.’s Koreatown goes on for miles but Manhattan’s Koreatown is only a block long. We know this block so well, especially since we helped develop the lounges and hotspots when we were younger. We have so much respect for the block, but we wanted to expand K-town. Our restaurant is more communal, and we wanted more of that Korea-like feel—that kind of after-work lifestyle.
Deuki, you’re a Momofuku and Jean-Georges alum. What made you decide to be head chef of Baekjeong’s U.S. flagship?
Hong: I’m learning an incredible amount here. I literally get my ass kicked every single day (laughs). Momofuku and Jean-Georges were 50-something seats. Baekjeong holds 150 seats, two floors and 400 people each night. Back then, it was fun when I could say, “I’m in a Michelin star kitchen” or “Oh, I work on a very cool staff.” Here, everything’s new, it’s a different animal. We want to treat our customers right, and the only way on my end to do that is making sure that, on any given day, this is the best jjigae I can make. Our meat is of the highest quality. The lowest we have is prime. Even our servers cook the meat for you on the spot, since it’s expensive meat. That’s our full service part.
Kwak:We’re kind of like the Peter Luger’s of Korean barbecue (laughs).
Hanjungsal, or pork jowl.
Besides the meat, which is obviously the star attraction, Baekjeong offers some fun twists, such as the doshirak (lunchbox) of rice, kimchi, vegetables and egg, or bibimbap. What else makes Baekjeong different from other Korean barbecue joints?
Hong: The rings around the grills are iconic of Baekjeong. One portion has what’s like our version of gaeranjjim (steamed eggs). We ladle the eggs in the rings while the meat cooks so the eggs cook on one side and the cheese melts with the [sweet] corn on the other.
What’s the relationship between Kang Ho-dong, the person, and Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong?
Ko: Kang Ho-dong is the main celebrity face. It really started with Kang’s [South Korean reality variety] show, Il Bak Ee-il (2 Days & 1 Night), where they [feature] these competitions focused on food and travel all over the country. The show was all about [Kang] since he is a bigger guy who loves to eat and is known to eat well. When Kang eats, he always eats mashi-kae (deliciously), as my mom always says. I trained with him for ssireum (Korean wrestling) one summer. In the mornings, we would hike up to the mountains. Breakfast was kogi and banchans and jjiggae and after that a quart of milk. After afternoon practice, lunchtime was kogi and jjiggae and just bowls and bowls of rice. After weight training, dinner was … kogi again! (laughs) [Kang] eats mashi-kae even if it was just rice. So from gag to restaurant, he’s gotten so popular.
Kkohtsahl, or prime unmarinated short rib.
Joe, can you talk more about your mutual interest in wrestling?
Ko: I’m a former championship wrestler, and my father immigrated to the States in 1974. My father was a ssireum wrestler who created the Korean American Ssireum Association of New York and brought over Kang to New York when Kang was a champion wrestler back in the day. My father passed away in 1997, but I continued to be involved in ssireum. That’s where the relationship and connection to Kang comes from.
When did you first think about bringing Baekjeong to Manhattan?
Kwak: Somebody told me that I had to check out [the first U.S. location of] Baekjeong, so I flew out to L.A. [with Deuki] last year. We went and it was an hour-and-45-minute wait. We get to our table and eat, and just stared at each other, thinking, ‘Holy cow. This is the best we’ve had.’ We have not had a meal like this in New York, ever. It was the whole experience. Like he’s (points to Deuki) eaten and cooked a lot of good food, and we were both on the same page.
So I get on the phone with my business partner, Joe Ko, and tell him to get on a plane to Korea and convince [Baekjeong’s corporate owners] to let us open one in New York. Joe literally got on the plane in the next few days, flew to Korea and rode on a bus for three hours to a ssireum tournament to track down Kang Ho-dong’s manager.
Ko: I pulled some strings and actually got the OK for the West 32nd St. Manhattan branch. It was a long journey to get to this point and open the restaurant.
Baekjeong landed in the No. 1 spot on NY Eater’s Hottest Restaurants of January 2015 and No. 11 on New York Magazine Grub Street’s Restaurant Power Rankings. Plus, there’s a two-hour wait! What’s that feel like?
Kwak: Yes, it’s an amazing problem to have. Corporate in Korea named us the flagship for the States, and they had the highest expectations from us since we’re in Manhattan. They’re ecstatic since Korean food rarely gets that type of recognition. I’m realizing how Korean food is really blowing up, especially in New York, thanks to guys like Hooni Kim and David Chang who put Korean cuisine on the map. Manhattan’s Koreatown, it’s now not just for Korean people, it’s for mainstream America. This block has changed tremendously and evolved—but it still has yet to catch up with the evolution of food. We feel that the time has come to raise the bar and to really give people that true Korean food experience. That’s what we want to do. We want people coming here because we serve great food.