Pin It

YakiniQ BBQ: Seoul Food for San Francisco 

Wednesday, Dec 12 2012
Comments

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.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

Related Locations

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed