There's a certain type of elitist foodie who will claim that if you can't eat the best, most authentic version of a cuisine, you shouldn't bother eating it at all. These are the types who will say there is no great Korean barbecue to be found in the city — to get it, you have to travel to the Peninsula or, as some purists insist, all the way to Southern California. But there is something to be said for availability, and it's my firm belief that it's always better to eat a pretty good local version of an ethnic food than not eat it at all.
Which is where YakiniQ comes in. It's a second-floor restaurant across the street from the Japantown Peace Pagoda offering all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue well into the night. The menu is dominated by marinated and unmarinated beef, pork, chicken, seafood, and some of the weirder bits of each. Its smoke-filled room is lined with booths separated by bamboo curtains, each with a griddle in the center (you will carry the aroma of grilled meat for the remainder of the evening). And even if the the meat and marinades aren't quite up to the standards of the best barbecue palaces down south, it's still an authentic and delicious adventure of a meal, and just a Muni ride away.
The most happening time to visit YakiniQ is a Friday or Saturday night after 10 p.m., when the room is packed and the stairs are lined with people waiting upward of an hour for a table (reservations are strongly encouraged). You can hardly see through the smoke in the air and the sound level is very high.
On one such night, we were seated in an alcove to the main dining room next to a raucous karate team. "Gangnam Style" came on the large, flat-screen TV on the wall — the restaurant is filled with them, all showing K-pop music videos on a loop — and the room erupted in song and dance. We couldn't believe how much life there was in this one corner of the otherwise dead streets of Japantown.
Korean barbecue is one of the great DIY meals, and the intricacies of cooking your own meats makes dinner into a contest. Order three proteins at a time off the menu — $19.99 per person for most meats; $23.99 if you want bulgogi, beef tongue, and pork neck (you do) —and the waiters turn on the stove and come back moments later with bowls of raw, marinated meats and fish. On the table already are metal bowls of banchan: small dishes like cabbage kimchi, marinated bean shoots, stir-fried glass noodles served cold, potato salad studded with raisins, marinated seaweed, daikon radish pickles, and egg soufflé. The banchan complement the meat by whetting your appetite, enhancing the flavor, or acting as a salve for the spicier items. The selection here is decent — about a half-dozen dishes, enough to provide variety but not as many as appear at some of the best Korean barbecue restaurants.
The biggest drawback, by far, is the grill: instead of using coal, YakiniQ uses a gas flame equipped with a flat griddle. It's fine for thin-sliced meats like brisket and bulgogi, which are done cooking almost as soon as you put them on the heat, but it's harder to get caramelization with cuts like pork belly and pork skin on a griddle rather than a grill, and we missed the smoky flavor that charcoal imparts.
The lack of that charred flavor and caramelization is part of the reason why the best meats on the menu are the marinated ones — kalbi, bulgogi, spicy or miso pork belly, and something called "fire squid" that comes with a menu warning, though it isn't especially spicy. The meat is juicy and tender with just enough heat from the Korean chili paste in the sauce. Rice paper comes free with an order if you want to make wraps, but it's worth coughing up the extra two bucks for lettuce for meat-wrapping purposes. It comes with a bean paste sauce and some raw jalapeño and garlic slices, which you should throw on the grill. Put the meat in the lettuce, add some sauce and roasted garlic, and repeat.
Overall, our biggest problem with the meal was the issue inherent with Korean barbecue as a whole for the less experienced. Without attentive service, you have to cook your own dinner while you're eating it, and so many items can be inexpertly grilled. Unlike some places, where the staff takes pity on newcomers and takes the meat off the heat when it's done, here the servers leave you alone unless they're changing your griddle or you push the call button on the table to summons them.
So it was completely our fault when we overcooked the spicy squid into a chewy mess. We couldn't tell if the slices of tongue were tough before the grill or if we'd overcooked them, and we had no idea what we were doing with the pork skin, though it turned out sweet and delicious, a smooth fatty treat. Some brisket went awry through sheer neglect. But despite the casualties, the meal was a nice change of pace from the usual restaurant courses — and a more exciting one, especially fortified with soju and large plastic bottles of Korean Hite beer, a standard lager that goes well with spicy food. And when we'd eaten our fill, we went out into the night in search of karaoke, happy to be within stumbling distance of home.