An In-Depth Guide to Visiting a Korean BBQ Restaurant (in Korea)

One of the most daunting things to do in Korea is to go to a Korean barbecue.

I’m ashamed to admit it took us a few months to go to a barbecue by ourselves We were fearing the whole situation because our Korean was so bad and we didn’t know how it all worked. We didn’t want to mess up or commit some major faux-pas so we mostly hid at home.

In the end the only thing that set my mind at ease was doing copious amounts of research so that I was completely prepared before I stepped through the doors. Later – after going to restaurants a few times – I realised we were scared for no reason at all. Going to a Korean barbecue is simple!

There are a bunch of guides out there for meats and the many different types of Korean barbecue you can eat. It would be pointless to write a similar guide. Instead I’d like to write a guide about the specific process of going to a Korean barbecue. How to order. What to do once you order. How to pay.

Really the hardest thing to do is to step through the door. After that the staff will do everything within their power to help you. One thing I always remind myself of is that they’re running a business and they want my money! If I was running a restaurant and a foreigner came in, not speaking my language, I’d do anything to help them and I’m sure that’s how they feel when I step through the door.

First you may like to know how to find a barbecue restaurant. Really it’s as easy as walking to the end of the street. Barbecue restaurants are so numerous in Korea that they’re literally everywhere, on main streets and down dark alleys. The easiest ways to spot a barbecue are to look inside. If you see lots of long ventilation tubes hanging from the ceiling, it’s a barbecue restaurant for sure. Not all restaurants have these, so you can also look for flames on the building outside, or simply look to see if people are barbecuing inside.

How to enter a Korean BBQ

Depending on what type of restaurant it is, once you step through that door a number of things could happen. If it’s a fancy restaurant, a waitress will guide you to a seat. It’s a good time here to mention how many people there are in your group. If you don’t know Korean, you can use your fingers. (Unless there’s more than 10 in your group, then you’re fucked!)

Essentially all you need to do is say a number in Korean followed by myung which means person or people.

One person – Han myung

Two people – Doo myung

Three people – Say myung

Four people – Nay myung

Five people – Dah sop myung

The waitress will then lead you to a table.

If it’s not a fancy restaurant, chances are that it’ll be pretty small so as soon as you walk through the door the waitress will see you and either wave you to a table, or you can simply sit down yourself. When I say a waitress, don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll be met with a young, pert smiley girl. More than likely you’ll be face to face with a middle aged, grumpy woman.

How to Order Food

After you sit down it’s time to look at the menu. In a nice restaurant they’ll bring a menu to you. If it’s really fancy there may even be English on it! Then when you order you can point to the thing you want.

The majority of restaurants only have a menu on the wall though. No English. Just lots of Korean characters. If you don’t read hangul you’re basically screwed. If you do read hangul you’re still screwed because there are so many different types of meat sold that it’s hard to know what you’re looking at.

That’s what made it so daunting for us to go into a restaurant. You can’t exactly stand up and point at the wall, can you? (You could, but it’d possibly be incredibly embarrassing.)

korean-bbq-menu

To make life easier on yourself, you could learn Korean…or if you feel it’s a little too much to ask (learning a whole language to eat in a restaurant) you could write down these three types of meat and check if they’re on the menu.

  • Sam-gyup-sal. 삼겹살
    A cut of meat from the stomach of a pig. It exists in pretty much every barbecue restaurant.
  • Soh galbi. 소갈비
    Another popular cut of meat. The rib meat of a cow.
  • Dway-gee galbi 돼지갈비
    The rib meat of a pig. Cheaper than soh galbi.

If it’s a barbecue restaurant, chances are it will sell one of these cuts of meats, unless you see fish tanks everywhere around you. If in doubt ask for sam-gyup-sal 삼겹살. Often a restaurant specialises in a certain animal or type of meat, you can tell which one by looking outside the restaurant. If there’s a picture of a happy cow then they’ll sell beef so you can assume they’ll sell galbi.

Meat is actually sold per serving, so you also need to decide how many servings you want before you order. Once you decide what to eat, you can communicate it to the waitress. Either by writing it down, pointing to the menu or best of all speaking (which is actually pretty easy.)

Like so:

For example: Samgyupsal sam een boon juseyo. (Samgyupsal, three servings, please.)

If you want to keep it simple you can just say the name of the meat. Then use your fingers to communicate how many servings you want.

If you’ve struggled to keep up so far, don’t worry. You could always just say “go-gee juseyo” which translates as “meat please.’ They’ll no doubt take pity on you and bring you some meat, although I’ve never tried this personally!

Once you ask for your meat, the server may do a number of things:

  • Nod and walk away. Woohoo! You’re getting your meat.
  • Shake her head and say something like “ob-sa-yo”. This means they don’t have the meat you asked for.
  • Shake her head and say something about the number of servings. We’ve tried to order two servings of meat lots of times and the servers says we need to order three. Bear this in mind if there’s only two of you.
  • Possibly ask if you want drinks.
  • Sometimes ask if you want rice. Listen for the word “bap”.

For all of these things it’s easier to look at body language. If the waitress asks about drinks she’ll probably do the universe sign for drink – an invisible bottle coming up to her mouth. If she’s talking about the number of servings she’ll do numbers with her fingers, etc.

How to order drinks

Once you’ve ordered your meat, you may want drinks to go with it. The most popular drink for Koreans is soju, a strong rice liquor, which is often drunk straight. It’s cheap as anything and similar to vodka. If you want to get drunk and have an authentic experience then this is what you want.

Otherwise barbecues also offer beer (really just lager) and soda (Cola, Fanta, Sprite [Which is actually called cider in Korea]). To see what lagers and sodas the restaurant has, simply look for the drinks cabinet nearby.

If you don’t want to buy drinks, restaurants bring you a complimentary bottle of water to drink as you enter.

You ask for drinks in much the same way you would meat.

For example…sah-ee-dah say byung juseyo. This would be “Three bottles of Sprite, please!”

Again, if you don’t know Korean you can easily express what you want with body language and by saying a drink name.

Cooking Your Meat

Once your meat is ordered, the waitress will bring a lot of side dishes to your table. These are called banchan and differ depending on the restaurant you go to. The waitress will also put some ssam on your table. Ssam is a number of different leaves which you use to wrap your meat in.

As always, the way your meat is cooked depends entirely on the restaurant. Some restaurants have staff which cook your meat for you, while some restaurants let you cook your food yourself.

Every table has controls for the barbecue allowing you to put the flame on high, low or turn it off entirely. Often restaurants put charcoal into the middle of your table which is heated by the flame until it is hot, then you can turn the flame off and allow the coals to cook your food.

Usually I wait for the charcoal or grill to heat up for a few minutes, then I’ll turn it down and throw some meat on. If the waitress doesn’t cook the food for you then you’ll be completely in control. Use common sense in that case. If you leave the flame on high your meat will burn. With no flame though, it might not cook.

Each table is provided with scissors so you can cut up your meat once it’s cooked or while it’s cooking. You cook your meat in the middle of the grill and once it’s done you can move it to the sides where it’s cooler, or turn the flame off so the heat goes down.

While the meat cooks, you can throw some of the side dishes onto the grill as well. If a waitress is cooking for you, it’s up to you to put the side dishes onto the grill.

You can cook kimchi (which turns yellow and translucent when it’s done – and is delicious), peppers, garlic and anything else (within reason).

Once your food is cooked you’re ready to eat.

Eating Your BBQ

Now for the best part. Eating. There’s about a hundred different rules you’ll read for eating Korean barbecue and my own opinion is that you should just do whatever you like. It’s your food so eat it however you want. Every person in Korea eats differently, so why should you have to follow one person specific rules on the Internet?

The standard way of eating Korean barbecue is to make a “sandwich” with the meat, ssam and banchan. Grab a leaf, put some meat in the middle (which you can dip in some side dishes), add a little cooked kimchi, a little sauce, and a few pieces of roasted garlic. Roll the leaf up, pop it in your mouth and chew. It’s like a taste explosion!

Some people state that Korean’s always throw the whole sandwich into their mouth, but I feel this is another rule that’s not really a rule. Just take as many bites as you want and enjoy it! Beware though, it’s easy to burn your mouth and the meat may be super hot!

One definite rule that you should never break is:

Never leave your chopsticks standing up in your rice.

Whenever you’re not using your chopsticks, place them over your bowl. Aside from that I’ve seen pretty much every “rule” be broken at some point without anyone seeming to care.

Getting More Food / Drinks

If you figure you want more food or another drink, you can get the attention of the waitress in a number of ways. Some restaurants have a handy call button on the table which calls over a waitress – otherwise you can just do what you do anywhere else – make eye contact and wave.

The most common method used in Korea is to shout towards the waitress “Chogi yo!” which means “Excuse me!” She may come over to you, or may just expect you to continue shouting what you want.

Side dishes are all complimentary meaning that if you run out and want more, all you need to do is ask. Grab the attention of a waitress, hold up the thing you want more of and say “Daw juseyo” – “more please”. Or simply show her the empty container and she’ll get the idea.

Paying the Bill

Once you’re full and ready to leave there’s no need to get a bill. Look around the room and you’ll see a computer or till somewhere. Head to this and the waitress will top up your bill for you. Often the total will come up on the computer screen for you to look at – in tourist areas they may type the total into a calculator.

As you leave, don’t forget to say thank you! It’s only polite. Gam-sam-needa!

If you have any questions about eating at a Korean barbecue, feel free to ask them in the comments.


Photo by Laura D’Alessandro published under a CC license.

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