Manhattan’s newest Korean barbecue restaurant is going all-in on all-you-can eat — an effort to break the stigma of bad buffet dining with Korean traditions and an expansive menu of lesser-known cuts.
Let’s Meat, the first all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue restaurant in Manhattan, opened over the summer at 307 Fifth Ave. between East 31st and East 32nd streets, offering more than 30 different choices at $40.
It’s a surprising addition: Even though Los Angeles has an abundance of AYCE Korean barbecue options, New York has been fairly devoid of them due to high rents and cost of operations, especially near Koreatown, where big money funded chains tend to dominate. Plus, in the last year, several more ambitious Korean barbecue restaurants have opened in the area, including SamWon Garden and Yoon Haeundae Galbi, while big players like Baekjeong and Jongro BBQ still regularly have long waits.
Initially, Let’s Meat was not going to be AYCE, according to manager Hue Lee. But the team behind the restaurant became curious that why AYCE had not been possible in New York even though they’ve been popular for years in Korea and Los Angeles, he says. “It’s a thin profit margin, but we realized that it can be done and profitable if it’s played right,” he says.
Like with many AYCE spots, Let’s Meat has ground rules: First, it’s required to have all-you-can-eat; diners can’t order a la carte. Leftover meat cannot be taken to-go, and there is a maximum of 100-minute dining time. During the given time span, diners can order an unlimited amount of meat within the first 70 minutes, and the rest of the time is used to grill the meat and eat.
In practice, the rules are not enforced with an iron fist, says Annika Lee, the assistant manager at Let’s Meat. Most tables stay around two hours. “We don’t heavily enforce these rules, but we make sure to explain these rules to our customers since most of them are not familiar with the all-you-can-eat concept,” she says.
The menu is divided into two different options, original and premium. The original option, priced at $32.99, includes 27 items — 17 proteins, including tofu, six side dishes, and four vegetables, while the premium option, priced at $38.99, includes 11 items — four side dishes and seven proteins, including seafood, in addition to all 27 items from the original. Side dishes include appetizers like tteokbokki, spicy rice cake, pa-jeon, scallion pancake, and a couple stews and rice. Korean ramyun and naengmyun, cold noodle with beef broth, are also available for an additional $5 or less.
What’s different about Let’s Meat is that it goes hard on less ubiquitous cuts of meat. The list ranges from traditional options like samgyupsal, pork belly, to hard-to-find cuts like gopchang, small beef intestine, and dwaeji ggupdaegi, pork skin. There are also seafood options like spicy squid, shrimp, and jjuggumi, short arm octopus, which is commonly found in barbecue restaurants in Korea but is less common in New York.
And Let’s Meat also uses a different grilling system than other places in town. Here, each table is stocked with sot ttukkeong, the lid of the traditional Korean cast iron gamasot, a tool used in Korean cooking mostly in the countrysides. Some Korean barbecue places in NYC use a cast iron pan, but Let’s Meat is the first restaurant to use sot ttukkeong to grill — both a symbolic and practical move. Shaped like a big disk with a handle, the sot ttukkeong works like heavy cast iron, and when used, meat receives a deeply-charred and crispy crust on meat that can’t be replicated on any other grills.
A sot ttukkeong represents a part of Korean tradition that’s often forgotten. This heavy, cast-iron lid, used since the Stone Age in Korean history, was essential to make rice or boil water. It represents a slower, different time in the country that often gets ignored in the fast-paced, high-technology version of Korea that exists now. Sot ttukkeong cooking has now become a special dining experience that many Koreans seek out because of the nostalgia factor, especially for older generations, since only a few people who live in countrysides cook with gamasot and a sot ttukkeong.
“There is a Korean idiomatic phrase, ‘sharing a meal with a gamasot,’ which roughly translates as ‘living under the same roof,’” Lee says. “By having introduced a sot ttukeeong cooking to our customers, I want them to feel like they are a part of our family and to experience a piece of Korean tradition.”
Considering a meal at most Korean barbecue restaurants in New York can easily skew over $100, the price point at Let’s Meat is insanely low. At Jongro BBQ, a pork platter, which includes three different cuts of pork is priced at $59.99, portioned to serve around two to three people, and it’s the cheapest option for a set menu. Let’s Meat offers 24 different cuts of protein — pork, beef, seafood, and even tofu — and ten different side dishes to complement the meat for under $40.
Meat, of course, is expensive. The price for Korean barbecue is often decided by the market cost, and depending on the purveyor’s availability and accessibility, many restaurants often change prices regularly to keep buying the meat from the same purveyor, often due to convenience.
Let’s Meat takes a different approach, though. The restaurant keeps costs down by spending more time on finding purveyors, Lee says; they set the price first, then seek a supplier that will be able to provide the same quality of meat with within their budget, says Mr. Lee.
But Lee also says that they’re betting on making profits by not just charging for the meat but by gaining repeat diners who feel satisfied with the service and value. “When customers see that they are getting more than what they pay, they are mostly like to come back to try more,” he says.
Let’s Meat is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Wednesday, and until 3 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.