Korean barbecue sizzles in Central Jersey

One of my favorite restaurants in Central Jersey is on the corner of a strip mall advertised with only a half-lit sign that says “SUSHI.”

However, on most nights when you walk into Kimchi Hana, a Korean barbecue eatery at 6101 Hadley Road in South Plainfield, the dining area is filled with customers — most of whom are Korean, eating marinated meats cooked over an open char broiler on their tables, accompanied by 10-plus plates of traditional side dishes including kimchi, or fermented and seasoned vegetables.

Over the past few years, Korean barbecue has slowly been making its way down from New York and Bergen County into Central Jersey, where Korean and non-Korean customers have begun clamoring for the tasty and savory meats marinated with soy and teriyaki sauces, including beef short rib, sliced pork loin and beef tongue.

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“Korean barbecue restaurants have become way more popular,” said Brian Kim, general manager of Seoulville at 45 W. Main St. in Somerville, where he works alongside his mother and chef, Helen, and his father and owner, Kenny. “People used to be afraid of kimchi. Now, they see it’s just pickled items and it’s more mainstream.”

John Yu, owner of NY Korean BBQ at 256 E. Broad St. in Westfield, said that he has noticed many of the Central Jersey Korean barbecue restaurants are in Edison. His own restaurant actually began as a deli in March 2014, but about eight months ago, he made the switch.

“People would come in to get sandwiches and when they saw we are Korean, they would ask, ‘Do you have Korean food? You’re Korean.’ So, one year after, we started to change,” he said.

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Yu said that he enjoys cooking the meats on char broilers in front of his customers because it makes them feel safer, since they can see how the meat is prepared.

Kim and his family had a Korean catering business in Edison, but bored with being another Korean eatery in Edison, they decided to make the move in January to Somerville, where there were no other Korean restaurants, to start a new eatery.

“We have definitely been way more successful than we imagined and we are especially surprised with the kind of crowd we’re getting,” said Kim. “We thought the clientele would be a lot of Korean and Chinese people around Bridgewater, but instead, it’s more Caucasian people and other immigrants.”

Unlike many other Korean restaurants, Seoulville does not have open char broilers on each table. Instead, Helen Kim cooks everything to order in the kitchen in a homestyle-fashion. Kim stresses that Seoulville isn’t just barbecue, but they also offer many other Korean items.

A traditional meal of Korean food.  Jenna Intersimone/Staff Photo

A traditional meal of Korean food. Jenna Intersimone/Staff Photo

He said, “I want to get rid of the label because a lot of Korean restaurants label themselves as Korean barbecue, but we offer more than that. The food that we eat is what people would be eating if they came to my house. We keep it simple.”

According to Kim, many people expect Korean food to be saltier and more pungent, but Korean food is much simpler compared to many other Asian cuisines. Also, he said that some customers are used to eating kimchi and other side dishes as appetizers at other Korean restaurants, but instead, they are supposed to be eaten with entrees, so these dishes are brought out with the main entrees at Seoulville.

“I think that a lot more people are getting interested in Korean food because it’s healthier, since our dishes have a lot of vegetables and aren’t as oily and salty as other cuisines,” said Yu.

Some of the most popular Korean dishes are the grilled beef rib BBQ and bulgogi, or grilled marinated beef. At Seoulville, Kim said that stir fry dishes, soups and rice on the rocks — meat or vegetables served over rice on a hot stone bowl — are also very popular.

“We want to spread the correct idea of Korean food,” said Kim. “It’s not something you would find at the food court in a mall.”

The seafood pancake at Seoulville.  Jenna Intersimone/Staff Photo

The seafood pancake at Seoulville. Jenna Intersimone/Staff Photo

Korean barbecue restaurants

Seoulville, 45 W. Main St., Somerville, with a menu ranging from $23 to $29 for barbecue and $15 to $32 for other Korean entrees. 908-864-4100 or seoulvillenj.com.

Kimchi Hana, 6101 Hadley Road, South Plainfield, with main dishes ranging from $9 to $30. 908-755-0777.

NY Korean BBQ, 256 E. Broad St., Westfield, with a menu ranging $9.99 to $15.99 for main dishes. 908-233-2001 or nykoreanbbq.com

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