A few weeks ago, I decided that it’s been way, way too long since I’ve gorged myself on Korean barbecue, and that my dry streak needed to end as soon as I could (safely) manage. Immediately, it became an urgent matter—and so commenced a long evening of Googling, menu-reading, and emailing. I must’ve gone through 30 menus and sent out 10 or 15 emails, all to receive only one (yes, one) reply.
That reply was from Gunbae, a year-old restaurant which happens to be within walking distance of my apartment. It was a short email, and it certainly didn’t address all of my questions, but it told me what I wanted to hear: “We don’t have any nuts in our menu. And we use Sesame oil for some sauce and sesame seed for topping the food.” As far as I can tell, though, Gunbae isn’t the type of restaurant that ensures its ingredients are all free from cross-contamination—so I’ve categorized them as “technically not nut-free.” Still, no nuts in the kitchen is usually good enough for me, so I decided to Gunbae a try.
I brought my mom and my boyfriend along for the ride, because, well, who doesn’t love Korean barbecue? To start, we ordered the seafood pancake, and our server brought out a number of side dishes, too: steamed egg, kimchi, lotus root, seasoned broccoli, and…macaroni salad? Sure. And when it came time to barbecue, we decided on the wagyu kalbi (which is a boneless short rib) and the yang nyum kalbi (another boneless short rib, pictured below).
The seafood pancake and the sides came out immediately after we ordered. I didn’t get around to trying most of the sides—Sam and my mom took care of those—but I did try the egg (pictured at the top of this post), and I was glad I did. Our server had put a pot of something on our table’s burner when he brought out the rest of the sides, and honestly, none of us had any idea what it was until he came back to stir it and we got the chance to ask. He told us it was a Korean egg dish and encouraged us to just try it as he spooned it into our plates—and so we did. It was really tasty: light, fluffy, and sweet, with a distinct sesame flavor.
Next was the seafood pancake, which was probably my favorite dish of the night. It was wonderfully crispy, but the real draw was how absolutely packed it was with seafood. The squid was perfectly cooked—chewy, but not unpleasantly so—and even the scallops had a lovely texture. (I’m a scallop-hater. I’m sorry.) We lost the dipping sauce in all the hubbub—there must have been 15 plates on our table—but even without it, the pancake was delightful.
But onto the real reason we’d come: the meat. First came the wagyu, at a frightening $44.95 for 5 small pieces. (I couldn’t get a picture, but it looked a whole lot like this.) Our server cooked it for us—he didn’t give us the option to do it ourselves—and it wasn’t bad at all, but it certainly wasn’t as flavorful as I’d have liked. We ate it rare, and it was well-cooked and tender, but the flavor (or lack thereof) left us all wanting. So in the hopes of finding something tastier, we ordered a marinated cut of beef: the yang nyum kalbi (pictured at the top of this post).
Again, it was well-cooked, and the texture was great, but the flavor wasn’t all I’d hoped for. It tasted like a slightly better version of the Bool Kogi from Trader Joe’s—which isn’t quite a compliment. The most accurate word I can apply to the marinade is “vague”; it was vaguely garlicky, vaguely sweet, vaguely…vague, without any of that strong, pointed flavor I’ve come to expect of Korean barbecue. In all, I was pretty disappointed.
Still, it’s not as if I’ll never go back. The egg was good, the pancake was great, and I’m already eyeing a few dishes I’d like to try: the fried pork dumplings, the wagyu kimchi fried rice, and the mandu guk (a hot pot with beef broth, pork dumplings, scallion, and egg). Unfortunately, though, my search for Korean barbecue that’s both safe and good is not over.
Find Gunbae at 67 Murray Street, just off of West Broadway. (Oh, and there are private karaoke rooms downstairs, if you’re into that sort of thing.)
I thought Korean food doesn’t usually contain nuts. Have you not found this to be true?
I thought the same, but a lot of the Korean places I’ve looked into have had a nut dish or two on the menu, so I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky with the places I’ve chosen.
Good to know. Will you not eat there if there are nuts in one dish? Do they use a wok like in Chinese cooking?
It depends on the restaurant, really. If a place has nuts in a dish or two and I get someone on the phone who a) generally sounds competent and trustworthy, b) understands food allergies, and c) can explain the measures they use to prevent cross-contamination, then I’ll probably still eat there. If I call and get information I’m not comfortable with (whether because it seems unreliable or because it’s just generally allergy-unfriendly, i.e. “We don’t keep our ingredients separated” or “We won’t be able to prepare your food in a separate area”), then I’ll just avoid the place entirely. (Or if they just tell me “let your server know; you’ll be fine!” without any further information. That puts me off, too.) Basically, I just go with my gut.
Re: the wok issue, I’m pretty sure woks can be used in Korean cooking, but I don’t think Gunbae uses them. When it comes to other restaurants, though, I wouldn’t know.
[…] far too long since I’d “gorged myself on Korean barbecue” before launching into a write-up of Gunbae, a nut-free (but rather disappointing) KBBQ spot that’s kinda-sorta in my neighborhood. I […]