Mapo BBQ in Murray Hill, Queens: Is This The Best Kalbi in Town?
Korean BBQ is where it's at. When Westerners think short ribs, usually it's the braised kind. Soft, tender, and rich, glazed with a red wine demi-glace and slow-cooked to tender submission, it's cold-weather fare. Koreans see short ribs, and they think kalbi, the king of the Korean BBQ table.
Marinated in a sweet and garlicky soy and pear-based sauce, when properly prepared, it's rich, tender, and powerfully beefy, with crisp bits of charred fat. Mapo BBQ, a nondescript BBQ joint in Murray Hill (that's the one in Queens off the LIRR, not Manhattan) serves a decent but small selection of Korean soups and stews, but you really don't need to bother with them (even the waitresses will steer you away from them). The thing to order is their kalbi, which
might be is the best I've ever had in my life. It's well worth the 40 minute ride out of the city.
Most Korean BBQ spots serve thin slices of short rib cut flanken-style (perpendicular to the bone). At Mapo, the ribs come as a full 2-whole-rib slab cut off the bone just before grilling. It's finely scored for tenderness, very lightly marinated, and heavily marbled—looking at it, you could easily believe that it's a Kobe beef flatiron.
The other thing that sets the beef apart is its cooking medium: Gas is the standard for cook-at-the-table Korean restaurants. But at Mapo, a bucket of glowing hot coals are brought to your table and deposited in the cavity in the center. I'm not even sure that it's legal, but it sure makes a huge difference in the flavor of the beef.
After the reasonably friendly (but very efficient) waitress helps grill your meat, she snips it to pieces with a pair of scissors for you to wrap in emerald green lettuce with a dollop of spicy and savory ssamjang and raw onions marinated in a light soy broth. It's heavenly stuff.
If you want to branch out from beef (you really don't have to), the pork belly is also wonderful. Meaty and generous, served with a couple of fatty riblets to gnaw on.
Banchan, the small dishes of pickles and salads that are brought to your table at the start of the meal, are also of exceptional quality and diversity here, and help offset the hefty $28.95 price tag for the beef. They vary throughout the year depending on what's fresh (or properly fermented). My recent visit had over a dozen varieties including a young, crunchy kimchi, raw crabs in a fiery pepper sauce, agar cakes with roasted chiles, and crisp water spinach with sesame seeds. In the past I've had tiny vegetable pancakes and even pickle-laden pasta salads.
Meals start with a complementary cast iron skillet full of excellent charred corn, and a bubbling stone pot of steamed egg custard. On request, you'll also get a bowl of spicy tofu and vegetable soup to close your meal. Rich, brothy and vegetal, it's like a Korean take on minestrone.
There are cheaper places both in Murray Hill and in Manhattan, but $5-6 more per serving is a small price to pay for the best beef you're likely to get anywhere. Add all the freebies on top of the near-perfect beef, and you certainly leave feeling both stuffed and well-taken care of.
14924 41st Avenue, Flushing, NY 11355 (map)