The generous and somewhat socialist beauty of an all-you-can-eat (AYCE) menu is how it affordably mimics a fancier tasting menu or ambitious small plates place. In theory, it allows diners to sample a variety of preparations without worrying too much about portion sizes or the mental arithmetic of figuring out how much eight shared dishes will cost. Instead of a hundred prices, the AYCE menu has just a few. This way, patrons can focus less on the financial aspect of a meal and more on what’s most important: deciding what to eat.
And unlike more upscale counterparts, AYCE menus offer something else hugely important, as I found out as a 12-year-old at Sizzler’s endless salad bar: gastronomic freedom. Decades later, it’s a menu format I still genuinely love, whether it’s available at a local South Asian spot, a bare bones hotel lobby, or a Brazilian churrascaria.
High-cost cities like New York, where restaurants operate on slim margins, don’t see a ton of new entrants into this field, which is why the opening of Let’s Meat on 32nd and Fifth Avenue was a bit of a surprise this summer. It proclaims to be Manhattan’s first AYCE Korean barbecue spot. It’s a curious venue for this concept, given that Korean barbecue is already famous for its non-rip off prices and herculean portions.
This all prompts the question: Is Let’s Meat worth it? I swung by for a few meals to take a quick critical look and break down the Suttonomics behind it all.
How much does it cost, and what are the caveats?
Lunch and late night runs $20 for an abbreviated menu. Dinner is $33, or $39 for the deluxe menu. The priciest option includes a New York strip, beef intestines, entrails, as well as the the classic Korean galbi (marinated short rib). All meats are seared not over a wire mesh, as is common, but on a sot ttukkeong, a cast iron griddle that should ideally let the meats develop a handsome maillard char.
AYCE is valid for 100 minutes, with an upcharge of up to 30 percent for those who exceed that time frame, though my colleague James Park reported that the time penalty is rarely levied. The menu also cites that “any meat leftover” will result in a charge of $15 per person. And while that tariff wasn’t assessed when I didn’t finish my ribeye, logic suggests there’s a good reason to have it on the books: To make sure diners don’t abuse the AYCE policy and create excess food waste.
How do you order?
Diners select meats individually, with waiters recommending about four meats “per round.” Banchan appear after ordering, but some of the sides that come automatically in Korean barbecue restaurants — egg souffle, lettuce wraps, spicy tofu stew — must be specifically requested.
Advice: Skip the glutinous rice cakes, whose sauce evoked a thinned-out can of Campbell’s tomato soup. A better bet is the more traditionally reliable egg souffle, blazing hot and preternaturally fluffy. The longer menu also includes an extra selection of appetizers including a fine seafood scallion pancake, the batter loosely holding together bits of mussels, clams, and squid.
Is Let’s Meat a better bang for your buck than other Korean barbecue joints?
At lunch and late night, it’s hard to beat the Let’s Meat $20 deal if you’re okay with the more limited selections, like the thin-sliced brisket or ribeye — which are some of the best choices anyway. And at any hour, the unlimited policy should work to the benefit of anyone with a seriously athletic appetite, like a cyclist or swimmer trying to maximize calories per second, or quite frankly anyone who simply has a massive need for meat.
Folks with less elastic stomachs, however, might not find the arithmetic as compelling at dinnertime. For starters, Let’s Meat often turns away solo patrons, which means the minimum spend is $66 to $78 for two, not that much less than top tier barbecue spots like Jongro or Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong
Also keep in mind that regular Korean barbecue restaurants already serve insanely large portions at fair a la carte prices, making them a de facto AYCE deal. A recent (spectacular) meal for four at Kang Ho, which included more food than any of us could eat — dry-aged ribeye, brisket, galbi, pork skin, and an almost endless supply of elegant banchan — ran $106. That same meal at Let’s Meat, because of the per person pricing, would’ve cost over $150.
And then there’s the question of variety. Ideally, an AYCE barbecue spot would involve patrons partaking of a wide array of meats, with waiters doling out tiny tastings of tripe, jowl, tongue, or belly.
Alas, the generous portions at Let’s Meat mean that eating more than four meats for a party of two would be stretching the appetite — in other words, ordering more than one round doesn’t make that much sense. Anyone who selects the New York strip, which the waiters push hard, actually gets an entire steak, which helps torpedo the prospects of maximizing variety. Here, it’s worth remembering that leftovers can’t be taken home and that Let’s Meat can exercise the option of levying that “uneaten meat” penalty.
Gastronomically speaking, is this actually a good restaurant?
That’s a question I asked myself as I watched crimson brisket turn gray while it steamed on the lukewarm griddle. I pointed out this problem to a waiter, who turned up the heat to a level where rendered fats splattered and stung our arms.
Most Korean spots don’t typically involve singing one’s epidermis with grease.
“This is what you call a sucker steak,” my companion said of the New York strip, which was dry, flavorless, and laced with gnarly fat. Flatiron steak, gray and dull, suffered a similar fate. Beef intestine was eloquently seared, exhibiting a pleasant chewiness. If only the tube-like innards had been more expertly cleaned; accurately describing the aftertaste would require the use adjectives I’d prefer not to put to print. Galbi, marinated in soy and sugar, packed flavors that that tasted somewhat off; the cuts were more livery than beefy.
Let’s Meat generally does a better job with more paper-thin meats, like pork belly, wonderfully gelatinous pork skin, and ribeye, where even a bit of overcooking can be salvaged via dunking in rich ssamjang sauce. Note: Anything ordered “spicy” will result in meats coated in a somewhat harsh and one-dimensional blend of chiles. Better to order plain and season with your condiments.
As for the caramelized and burnished exteriors that carnivores go crazy for, it was only found on the brisket. The gossamer slices crisped up nicely, with the silky fats giving off a supremely concentrated aroma of beef. Really, this is the money order here, available on both the late night or lunch menus.
But any other time of day, and for most appetites, the right move is simply to go elsewhere.