If you believe that in order truly understand a restaurant, you must first understand the restaurant's proprietor, then there is no truer example of that than at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong in Flushing. The Seoul-based chain is founded by comedian, MC, and former professional wrestler Kang Ho Dong, who's known for his larger than life persona and even an alleged tax evasion scandal. But there is a serious side to Mr. Kang, who has made a name for himself as a genial host on his many TV shows, and was even tasked with the honor of broadcasting the Sochi Winter Olympic games for Korean television.
In all of his restaurants, including locations in Hawaii and Los Angeles, Mr. Kang's crazy caricatures can be found on the exterior of the building, business cards, on the walls, and even engraved into the chairs in the waiting area.
Such farce could lead one to assume that Mr. Kang treats the restaurant business like a gag. But on my visit, I found that couldn't be further from the case, as Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong is one of the tastiest, well executed, and certainly the most fun experiences I've ever had in Flushing.
Even before your waiter comes over to light the gas burner at your table top barbecue, you'll notice that you're not in a typical Korean barbecue restaurant. For starters, each grill is ringed by a tray containing peppers and onions, sweet corn that's been laced with mozzarella cheese, and a golden moat of raw egg. Adjustable vacuums do an adequate job of venting the smoke (although you'll still walk away from your meal smelling of meat and smoke). Soju ($11.99) is conscientiously chilled to a hair above freezing so that it arrives as a wonderfully refreshing slush. And most impressively, the menu strays from the mainstay samgyeopsal (pork belly) and galbi (beef short rib), instead starting at the head of each beast and settling in the vicinity of the tail.
For the sake of variety and excess, the pork (small, $47.99; large, $79.99) and beef (small, $54.99; large, $89.99) combos are your best option, although all items can be ordered a la carte. The pork combo consists of the cheek, belly, and your choice of spicy pork belly or marinated moksal (collar or neck), which I can't recommend strongly enough. A beef combo will get you thinly sliced chadol (brisket), marinated short rib, and either a second helping of marinated short rib or an outstandingly marbled cut of kotsal (ribeye).
Your avarice will be rewarded with complimentary bowl of doenjang jjigae (bean paste soup) or kimchi jjigae (spicy fermented cabbage soup), both of which are satisfying but unexceptional. Combos also come with unlimited bowls of dongchimi, a cold vinegary broth that's hinted with daikon radish, scallions, and ginger—an excellent foil for the richness of grilled meat.
Whatever option you choose, they'll start your progression of meats with the un-marinated cuts first before heading over to the brawnier and bolder flavors of marinated meat. For the beef combo, this means thinly shaved brisket simply cooked to a whisper above rare. It can be sauced with a wasabi- and onion-infused soy sauce and paired with pa muchim (seasoned scallion salad) and stuffed into a lettuce wrap, or just sprinkled with a few grains of salt. There was the un-marinated ribeye which gets a rub down with a bit of pork fat for a firework of flame and opulence. Galbi finishes the combo in an assertively salty, meaty, and smoky fashion.
Curiously, the two combos didn't hold equal—the pork combo offered not only the familiar comforts of Korean barbecue, but more exciting and deeply lovable bites of pork from less popular primals. The pork jowl was meatier and richer than you'd ever expect a pig to be. The belly was helpfully scored to open up surface area, a technique not unique to this restaurant, but always appreciated for the sake of even cooking and crispiness.
And the pork collar? It was marinated to a ruddy shade of brown and enveloped in pockets of fat. After careful grilling, it transforms into the most intensely meaty bite of pork that you may ever try. You may even ask the waiter, as I did, that they didn't accidentally confuse beef for pork. Your server will snip away a better part of the fat, and you'll watch as the edges get ever so crisp over the open flame. You'll eagerly take a bite and perhaps close your eyes as I did and regret that it's taken so long to find a bite of food such as this—intense porkiness, caramelized marinade, and a thrum of salt and other spices.
Equally sublime was the ring of egg, which diners shouldn't neglect throughout the meal—a stir here and there will help it along. It acts as an eggy sponge, retaining some of the smoke and a splatter of renegade fat and marinade. It tastes like an egg that swallowed a side of bacon, breakfast on a spoon in the best way possible.
If the egg is a differentiator, the dosirak (lunch box, $7.99) make the restaurant an outright curiosity. Cooked rice, sweet beans, egg, roasted seaweed, and a hint of spicy gochujjang is placed in a retro Korean lunch box. Then the waiter will vigorously shake the lunch box at your table before presenting a comforting, subtly sweet and spicy jumble of rice. Dinner and a show? Who knew that carbohydrates could be so entertaining!
The service, which is usually not a hallmark for most Korean restaurants, was speedy, sincere, and generous. More soju? It'll hit your table before you blink. Another bowl of dongchimi? Your waiter will bring out two bowls. Could we take home the rest of the gamja jorim (sweet glazed potatoes)? The waiter will fetch a fresh batch in a take-away cup.
As we walked out discussing the many highlights of the meal—the soju slush, the service, the egg, that ridiculous pork collar—the hostess interrupted to ask if we'd like to take a photo with the life-sized cutout of Kang Ho Dong situated next to the hostess stand. By now we'd endeared ourselves to the restaurant's idiosyncrasies and many quirks. I don't know if this was Mr. Kang's idea of a joke, showmanship, or pure egotism, but the joke's on anyone who thinks that he doesn't take his restaurants seriously.