Competition in Manhattan’s Koreatown has always been extremely fierce. More than half a dozen Korean barbecue houses span a mere two blocks between Madison and Sixth Avenue, with neighboring houses boasting their own flavor and fanbase. Even with coronavirus undercutting K-town’s vibrant nightlife, Manhattan’s K-town has adapted its revelry for the outdoors with sizzling Korean barbecue as the main draw.
Every Friday night, K-town opens the 32nd street pedestrian street and takes on a festive cheer. Outdoor barbecue grills will have you salivating as the scents of cooking meat waft past wooden patios, outdoor DJs, and festival lights. K-town diners are mostly non-Korean, enjoying ssam or grilled meats wrapped in leafy vegetables and downing soju (korean liquor) as avidly as any Korean ahjussi (old man) weary from the workweek.
Korean barbecue is centuries old, but only within about the last ten years has Korean barbecue gained much interest among non-Korean New Yorkers. “Korean barbecue is very convivial,” says Simon Kim of Cote, the world’s only Michelin star Korean barbecue restaurant. “It’s the perfect late-night feast with fire, fun, drinks, and company.”
You would think Korean barbecue, an inherently social experience, would’ve taken a hit during coronavirus. But Simon Kim argues, “We actually think the outdoor experience is more enjoyable for customers, and coronavirus has forced [barbecue houses] to be more creative.”
Cote now offers its steak omakase on portable butane grills at each outdoor tabletop. As servers expertly sear 10 cuts of beef, diners enjoy side dishes like kimchi salads, scallops, and egg soufflé. Incidentally, Cote’s outdoor tables are made from the same wood used to board up the restaurant for three weeks during Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year.
“We’ve been through so much as a restaurant and industry,” Kim says, who calls his staff “Dragon Slayers.” “From getting drenched in the rain ... to converting a Michelin barbecue restaurant into delivery ... and installing heat lamps for the winter, we’ve had to adapt at every twist and turn.”
Crisis has brought out different flavors in Korean barbecue houses, literally. Cote’s menu added new twists to classics like Korean fried chicken and naengmyeon (cold noodles). Kim cites wanting to refresh diners during tough times, and teamed with Goldbelly for nationwide delivery of the restaurant’s dry-aged rib-eyes and original steaks that are ready to grill at home.
Cote is one of the growing number of Korean restaurants spilling outside the two-block radius of Koreatown on 32nd Street over the last 10 years to satisfy New York’s interest in Korean cuisine. One quick look in Koreatown shows that it has reinvented itself in crisis. The neighborhood sports a modernized take on the pojangmacha (“pocha” for short) or “tented wagon” of street vendors and stalls seen in Seoul.
“Everyone in the food world knows Koreatown’s the place to be at night,” Simon Kim says. “That’s where Cote’s own staff goes to eat and drink after we close, and I didn’t open my restaurants in K-Town because of how competitive and high the rent is.”
Rent on 32nd Street’s “Korea Way” can be upward of $60,000 per month, owing to K-Town’s around-the-clock hours and popularity as a late-night dining destination before the pandemic. Sophia Lee is the owner of Miss Korea BBQ, a popular three-story barbecue house located squarely between Fifth and Sixth avenues. The restaurant used to host hundred of hungry diners on a weekend night, and is now operating with 25 percent indoor capacity and a small outdoor extension of K-Town. “We’re all putting our best faces on despite how much we’re struggling,” she says.
Some business owners have said that Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans has been helpful, and hope for a second round as soon as possible. “PPP is the single most important reason why we’ve been able to keep the lights on,” says Simon Kim.
Several K-Town business owners recently met personally with Councilman Keith Powers and Rep. Carolyn Maloney with a proposal for Koreatown’s recovery. At the top of the agenda was a formal request for rent cancellation for up to five months of the pandemic and relief for landlords.
Business owners further emphasize that opening the pedestrian street to cars between Sixth and Madison avenues during the week (not just on the weekend) is crucial to coaxing guests to dine during the week. “We want to spread potential dining crowds that may form on the weekends,” adds Joung Lee, President of the New York Korea Town Association. “It also gives us a chance to recoup since we don’t reach capacity during the week.”
“We’ve been here for over 10 years and we’re trying to keep our heritage alive,” says Christina Jang, owner of New Wonjo. Jang’s mother owns Kunjip, another decades-old K-Town staple, across the street. Both restaurants operated 24 hours, seven days a week for years until the pandemic forced them to scale back their hours. Jang adds that she’s had to separate banchan for diners no longer comfortable sharing side dishes. “Coronavirus has turned Korean food upside down, but we’re taking it in stride,” she says, chuckling.
Korean barbecue’s reliance on dining tables equipped with grills and heavy-duty ventilators makes most restaurants eager to reopen for indoor dining. “A lot of Korean cuisine depends on warm, earthy flavors that are best served right away,” says Sophia Lee. “Not to mention barbecue is a literal feast, with banchan side dishes and spicy stews that require larger tables.” Multistory barbecue houses like Miss Korea BBQ are confident that they can appropriately space indoor tables at least six feet apart.
The neighborhood’s unique vertical density, however, remains a major hurdle. Jongro BBQ is a lively Korean barbecue house located on the second and fifth floor of a building that hosts other businesses including Karaoke City, which has also recently reopened. The restaurant has been cooking its barbecue and running it down staircases to outdoor diners on hot, sizzling skillets. “It’s an understatement to say these are extraordinary times,” says general manager David Oh. “We’ll keep outdoor dining as long as we can, but indoor tableside grilling is obviously where we shine.”
Jongro has strict temperature checks, mandatory logging of contact information, and borderline obsessive sanitizing protocols between customers. “Safety is our biggest priority, and a second wave would set back everything we’re fighting for,” says Oh. Each indoor table features ventilators above a barbecue grill and two burners — the larger one is used for meat and the smaller is for soul-satisfying stews like budae jjigae (army stew). Jongro is a prime example of the visual aspect of many Korean barbecue diners crave, with an on-site butcher cleaning, cutting, and preparing meats in front of customers.
Other restaurants with more outdoor real estate have set up smoky outdoor grills to visually entice passing diners. Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong and Love Korean BBQ are two neighboring barbecue houses drawing the longest lines. With the street closed to traffic on the weekend, diners can dine in the new wooden patios, each outfitted with greenery, lights, speakers, and rain protection. A glimmer of K-Town’s former nightclub glory has shifted outdoors, with K-pop, electronic music, and hip-hop playing all along the block.
Love BBQ opened on Valentine’s Day in 2020, just a few weeks before the pandemic hit Manhattan. Unlike the other specialty barbecue houses on the block, which have established customer bases developed over years, Love BBQ had less than a month of indoor dining before it was forced to close temporarily with the first wave of the coronavirus. “Outdoor dining was a lifeline for us, because once we focused on creating our outdoor space, people came flocking,” says Love BBQ’s management team. Despite all odds, Love BBQ has been excelling as a newcomer to the block among seasoned barbecue houses.
“Customers expect more than just a great meal — they want the whole experience and atmosphere,” says Love BBQ’s management team. “We’re well aware of the competition in K-Town and how many barbecue restaurants there are, but we were confident to bring our own concept and ideas to life.” The barbecue teamed with NYC bar legend Sother Teague to create a customized drink menu including soju and cocktails to complement their food.
Love BBQ’s exuberance has managed to shift the epicenter of K-Town to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 32nd Street with blasting music, strobe lights, and impromptu (socially distanced) street dancing. “It feels like you’re dining at an outdoor club, and you almost forget you’re in a pandemic,” remarks one customer. “There’s a rowdiness we all miss about K-Town that this corner recreates.”
“We’re going to keep outdoor dining as long as we can for those who feel safer out here,” says Bobby Kwak of Baekjeong. “We’ve invested in outdoor lamps and figured out a way to secure scaffolding and tents and keep crazy New York City weather out.”
Most Korean barbecue houses are grateful for the outpouring of support from the local community and the resilience of their staff in keeping the lights on. “We’re very lucky for all our customers, who have been understanding that we’re trying our best in recreating the experience they’re used to,” says Jang of New Wonjo.
Koreatown has always been a story of immigrant grit and reinvention. Survival, not competition, is the new name of the game in Korean barbecue. “We’re New Yorkers, first and foremost, so yes, we’re very food-centric and competitive normally,” says Simon Kim, “but New Yorkers also come together better than anyone else during crisis.” Mom-and-pop and Michelin-starred restaurant owners agree: Koreatown won’t go down without a fight.
Michelle Lee, MD, is a New York-based freelance writer and doctor who has written about New York food and culture, including during coronavirus, for New York magazine, Zagat, and Bon Appétit. She’s given podcast interviews on NYC’s Koreatown and the best cookies in NYC. Dr. Lee also works as a medical writer and editor.