The lobster was staring up through beady black eyes, flicking its tiny feelers while lashing out menacingly with a clicking claw. Our main course — a recently decapitated crustacean plunged into a massive clay bowl of boiling broth set above a flame on the table — was so fresh, it wasn't dead yet. As I squirmed back in my seat, our robed server yelled something in Korean, stuck his hand in another bowl, then tossed two live octopi into the cauldron. Tentacles unfurled in every direction as the creatures slithered frantically through the contents of the hotpot, straining to get away from the heat, convulsing as they pushed up the side of the bowl, turning pink as their frenetic movements slowed. Finally, one of my friends, unable to stand it any longer, poked a chopstick into an octopus and pushed it below the surface: a mercy killing.
Now we could eat.
We were at Sik Gaek, a Korean restaurant in Queens that's gained nationwide notoriety for its shocking barbecue that gives diners the chance to cook a live animal (or three) for dinner. It's quite a spectacle, and ramps up the ritual so important to most Korean barbecue restaurants in this country, including those clustered along a stretch of Havana in Aurora, where signs with Korean lettering are more common than English. In these strip malls, barbecues of all varieties hawk meat and hotpots, served with a side of tradition. Some are dark and flashy, with deafening Korean pop and leaping flames beneath sizzling grills — even if they stop short of the live-lobster sacrifices featured at Sik Gaek. Others downplay the drama.
2080 South Havana Street, Aurora
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Kimchi Jeon pancake $5.95
Jukumi daeji bulgogi $18.95
Soon tofu $8.95
And then there's Seoul BBQ, the restaurant that James and Lily Kwon opened three years ago, which follows the traditional formula of a Korean barbecue joint but removes just about every flashy aspect — including the actual barbecuing. Although several tables are equipped with a grill, I have yet to find a dish that allows me to use one, and I've never spotted any other diners grilling their dinner.
The Kwons aren't new to restaurant ownership — James estimates that they've been at least part-owners in over 35 restaurants all over the country, including a forthcoming spot in Northglenn called Q Table BBQ — and they wanted to make their first Denver spot, tucked into a nondescript building set off Havana, more upscale than its neighbors. The dining room is sectionalized in an effort to create discrete enclaves (you can also book a private room behind a row of closed doors for your party), and pop music, mostly Motown hits, plays just loudly enough to drown out the specifics of the conversations around you. That's a good trick, since the place is usually at least half-full — and totally full during peak hours.
While Seoul BBQ may not be flashy, it is certainly bright. The same kind of garish light so popular for illuminating international airports glares off the floor-to-ceiling white marble, corporate art on the walls and metal hoods above the tables. The room would be sterile enough for surgery, if not for the forest of potted plant life scattered throughout. Those plants help give the space an oddly peaceful feeling. There are no loud yells, no fiery explosions, no drama of any kind. And servers don't walk, they glide, quietly pushing carts to tables when they need to make a delivery, whether it's two glasses of water or a dozen entrees.
The banchan, a complimentary collection of a dozen side dishes that offers a broad representation of Korean cuisine, emphasizing the garlic, chili, eggs and pickling so prominent in that country, is the first delivery. Some of these dishes are standard: savory mini omelets full of garlic and scallions, baked Korean yams doused in sweet syrup, crisp pickles coated in chili oil and cut into discs, and kimchi, the classic fermented napa cabbage bathed in chili paste. Normally, kimchi is one of my favorite flavor combinations: simultaneously earthy and fiery, powerful enough to be paired with gamey meats and interesting enough to be consumed alone. Seoul BBQ's version is light and mild — inoffensive, but also boring. It's better when baked into the kimchi pancake offered on the appetizer menu, because the kitchen adds more chili to the kimchi in the pan-fried flour cake.
The kitchen rotates the rest of the banchan offerings, and that's when the really interesting stuff begins to hit the table. Stuff like the square of totori muk, or acorn jelly. I've had versions as dark as coffee and versions that are white and cloudy, but they all taste the same: mildly nutty, with a jello-like texture that takes on the flavor of the vinegar-and-sesame-seed topping. Or the salty, crispy shreds of dried fish, just mildly reminiscent of the sea, a perfect snack to go with a light Korean beer. I also love the cold tripe salad, strips of intestine braised until incredibly tender, then bathed in peppery, garlicky Korean soy sauce for a pleasantly sweet and savory dish. And though hard-boiled egg is the one food in the world I truly detest, I like the preparation at Seoul BBQ, with the egg marinated in a soy-sauce-based broth and served in a satisfying pool of the liquid.
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When the entrees arrive, they make up in flavor what they lack in ostentatious presentation. As much as I enjoy a show, at a place like Seoul BBQ, I'd rather not cook my own food: I like knowing that I'm getting the dish exactly as the restaurant intends it to be served. Besides, even without participating in the cooking process, here I get to finish off the preparation. The traditional way to eat Korean barbecue involves rolling the meat in leaves of lettuce with pajori (a spicy scallion salad), ssamjang (a spicy paste chock-full of garlic) and raw garlic, using the cool temperature of the accoutrements to balance the heat of the meat. Dishes are shared, and while one barbecue entree is more than enough for two people, your server will encourage each diner to order one. That's advice worth taking, because there are so many good ones to try, including the bulgogi: spicy marinated beef chuck, tender and juicy, sizzling on a hot grill pan in that Korean soy sauce. And the deeply delightful jukumi daeji bulgogi — a combination of fat-laced hunks of pork and springy baby octopi — reminds me why I love eating baby animals. (That's right, PETA: all the flavor of a big animal packed into a tiny baby body.)
Although Seoul BBQ draws the line at live sea creatures, it does serve some entrees in scalding-hot clay pots. The bibimbap mixes sautéed zucchini, carrots and bean sprouts with hearty chunks of spicy marinated ribeye, a yolky poached egg and a pinch of scallions over a bed of rice. The rice gets progressively crispier from the heat, and I enjoy the changing texture — unless I eat too slowly and everything gets charred. I do tend to eat this slowly, too, because I keep needing to add hot sauce for more flavor as I work my way through the dish. Another hotpot holds my favorite entree: soon tofu soup with seafood (it's also available with beef). The sweat-inducingly spicy broth is swimming with silky gelatinous tofu, clams, glittering mussels, delicate squid and huge prawns still in their shells. Popping the poached egg gives the dish creaminess; cabbage, scallions and fish flakes lend color and texture. This is deeply satisfying comfort food that makes me nostalgic — even if for someone else's past. It's also the manifestation of a kitchen that focuses on food rather than gimmicks.
Like everything that's gone before, the final ritual at Seoul BBQ is firm and quiet: Your server presents both the traditional sweet-rice sikhye and the check without a word, and without clearing the remnants of dinner away, allowing you to linger at long as you'd like. And once you finally leave, the staff won't shout goodbye at you, either — just offer a simple nod of thanks as you exit out into Aurora.
A meal here may be anti-climactic compared to the thrill-a-minute Sik Gaek, but the end is also a lot less sinister than catching the lobster claw from someone else's hotpot waving you goodbye.