You've Never Had BBQ Like This
Every month we pick a neighborhood and talk about one of the best food spots there each Monday. This month, we’re looking at Matjibs in Hannamdong. While it’s best known as the quietly trendy area next to Itaewon, among the cafes and craft beer bars are a few incredible food spots with a ton of integrity.
Barbecue is Korea’s go-to business meeting dinner, most popular late night eat, and most beloved cultural export. Something about sitting around a searing hot grill, watching as meat sizzles into crispy, tender pieces to be wrapped in lettuce with various sauces, is unbeatable. And yet, what varies between barbecue joints is… not really that much. Sure, there’s the quality of the meat, maybe even the kinds. There’s the kind of grill they use, which matters because charcoal does taste different from gas, but still. There’s the banchan [반찬], the sauces, the stuff they toss you for service [서비스]. There’s the price. And that’s about it.
Of all the bbq joints in Seoul – all the seeming millions of them – probably about half of them are good. Probably half of those are actually notably good. And probably a tenth of that quarter is restaurants that are really special, worth seeking out among the others. Even smaller, still, is the amount that could be deemed matjibs.
This week’s matjib is a bbq joint. But before I talk about it, I want to just mention that this is kind of a rare occurrence. For a place to be special enough that the way they prepare meat and serve sides is actually unique…well, you get it. But Hwapo Sikdang [화포식당] is something else.
First, this large spot is open 24 hours. It’s far from the only BBQ place that doesn’t close, but that doesn’t stop it from earning points. If food is good, it’s good. If it’s good and available literally whenever, that’s dope.
More importantly, Hwapo’s meat is not only extremely high quality, but aged. Dry aging beef is a standard way to bring steak to another level – aging pork is a little less common. But Hwapo’s cuts are, according to their menu, wet aged for more than 10 days. In the food world, aging pork is a contentious topic; beef ages well, pork not so much. But by wet aging within a certain limit, cuts of pork can retain tenderness and juiciness when cooking over harsh heat, such as a searing hot grill. You may have noticed that slow cooked pork dishes, like kimchi jjim [김치찜] or bo ssam [보쌈], if done well are fall-apart-tender and moist. Samgypusal may get crispy and tasty, but as far as tenderness…not so much. Hwapo’s aging process pretty much fixes this.
The most popular cuts, naturally, are pork belly [삼겹살], pork neck steak [목살스테이크], and pork ribs [갈비]. While the pork neck is the only one called a “steak,” when any of these meats arrive at your table they’re basically steaks. No more bacon-thin samgyupsal strips, or pork rib meat that looks like a wet rag hanging off a stick. These are serious cuts of meat, scored and dusted with coarse ground sea salt. Like a classic steak, these wet aged cuts take longer, and a little more strategy, to cook than your common bbq. An even sear on all sides seals in juices and gets a crispy crust. After a few minutes, the staff (or you) will cut up the meat into classic strips, which should basically be raw in the middle. After the pieces are cooked through, Hwapo is kind enough to provide racks that sit in the grill, allowing you to keep the meat warm but not overcook it (don’t fucking overcook it).
You’ll notice the difference in flavor and consistency right away. This pork has a really mild, light flavor, and the texture is crispy on all sides, buttery soft inside. Literally ideal for wrapping up in ssam [쌈].
Speaking of which, the ssam supplies and additional banchan Hwapo serves are excellent enough to complement the quality of their meat. A dish of various soy sauce-marinated and fermented greens arrives: trimmed garlic ramps, sesame leaves, a long green I don’t know the name of, and the house mugeunji [묵은지] – white, extra fermented kimchi. Of course, the standard lettuce, sliced garlic, and an array of sauces that includes wasabi. While wasabi is a rare choice, it’s perfect for the pork since it doesn’t mask the taste. A ssam wrap loaded up with hunks of pork neck or belly, marinated greens, grilled garlic, and a finessed smear of wasabi – perfect.
In addition, their soups and casseroles are banging and fill out the meal – their seafood soup is loaded with mussels, crab and vegetables, and their buddaejiggae is… well, it’s really solid buddaejiggae.
In many ways Hwapo is on the higher end of meat spots, but while it’s not a bargain, it’s also probably not as expensive as you think. Most of the pork cuts are 14,000 for 180g, which is about one person’s worth. For high quality barbeque, not unreasonable, and even better if you consider that they allow you to bring in your own alcohol.
Hwapo isn’t your standard bbq place, and that’s what makes it specifically worth going to. Think about it like this: you’re out late drinking in Hannam, or clubbing in Itaewon, and rather than the go-to drunk snacks, you splurge a little for wet aged thick-cut pork at 4 in the morning. I’m not saying you should do it like that, but it’s an option. And that’s a beautiful thing.
If you’ve been to Hwapo Sikdang, let us know how it was. For another Hannam-dong matjib, check out last week’s piece on this gamjatang joint.
Photo credits: @2ssonghee, @grandjisuk, @dcdcvel, @soyubyeol