Pretty much the only thing I know for certain about Korean BBQ is that I like it. A lot. I don't know truly authentic from not, but when deciding on a place in Denver, I figure going somewhere on Havana in the vicinity of Parker is a good start. Actually I have been to a few in that area but not for many years, so the other week was pretty much like starting over.
I picked Han Kang on Jewell and Havana with the help of my Asian-food-loving-Jewish-friend Brian. It apparently had charcoal grills and he thought it would be great to have his two and four year-old kids play with some fire and hot coals (they taste like burning), so we rounded up the families and met early on a Friday evening.
The charcoal grilling at Han Kang happens behind sliding doors off the main restaurant. The very nice older couple who was playing host, server and eventually grill-grate replacer welcomed us warmly and escorted us into the enclosed and heated tent ventilated by multiple fans built into the walls. Despite this top-notch ventilation system, there was an enticing hint of charcoal smoke in the air, and I went from hungry to ravenous by the time we got to our table.
We sat and immediately ordered our grilling meats: Galbi, or marinated beef short ribs, as well as some chicken. Before Brian and his wife could get their girls settled in, there were a couple dozen small plates on the table to help distract them some more. This really is an awesome place for kids. One of his girls sat next to me and, with her parents sufficiently distracted, immediately started getting to work on an interesting concoction of food and drink in her water glass. And who am I to judge? I started getting to work on pretty much the same concoction, only in my stomach. I have to say that I was not overly thrilled with the side dishes, or Banchan, as I believe they are called. The Kim Chi on one hand was fantastic. As was the plate of cooked-but-cold zucchini, and the seaweed with some sort of sesame sauce covering it. On the other hand, the cold steamed egg thing was pretty bland, and the big chunks of sweet potato were under-flavored and undercooked. One dish was just sliced daikon.
We also ordered some Bulgogi, Ddukboki and Mandu. These came very shortly afterwards and so began the juggling of plates and the creative process of finding table space that is synonymous with a Korean barbecue feast. The Bulgogi was marinated sliced beef and vegetables in what tasted like a wonderful combination of soy, ginger and sesame.
The Ddukboki was my favorite of the pre-barbecue eats. It is a simple dish consisting of rice cakes covered in a spicy, tangy and thick red chile sauce.
And Mandu are dumplings. These were pan fried and filled with pork, I believe. The kids loved these, and they were overall decent dumplings.
Still reeling and still finishing our first plates, a bucket of hot coals was precipitously dropped into the open grill at our table. The smoke and the smell were wonderful. Brian's older girl even abandoned her water-steamed-egg-coke-Ddukboki-sauce experimental mixture to check out this new development.
Trays of chicken and beef soon followed, and our server-host began scissoring off chunks of chicken and beef onto the stainless grill. We grilled and filled up glasses with what seemed like endless bottles of the Korean beer, Hite. We had a true family-style feast on our hands. The chicken was rubbery, but the short ribs were tender and delicious. I can remember better tasting marinade in my Korean barbecue experiences, but the smoky charcoal flavor of these grills (versus the electric grills) made all the meat taste that much better.
For some reason, although Brian's wife said she was done eating and my wife was slowing, Brian and I found ourselves in a fierce zone of man-fueled, charcoal-fume-enhanced-grilling-and-eating frenzy from which we could not escape. That's right, I said a "zone of frenzy". We ordered more short ribs and chicken and Bibimbob.
The Bibimbob came first and when Brian's wife declined and my wife struggled to eat more, I think that Brian was thinking the same as me: way too much food. Nevertheless we fully devoured what to me was the best dish of the night, and laughed fiendishly as we scraped the wonderfully charred and caramelized rice-bits from the bottom of the extremely hot stone bowl. Bibimbob is, of course, a vegetable and beef medley over rice with a gooey fired egg laid over the top. This Bibimbob, in it's hot stone bowl, was absolutely delicious.
It doesn't really matter what happens next. More meat came and we really ate it all. We even gnawed on the last bones of the last ribs. Our table was a disaster, and not from any more kiddie-food concoctions, but from sick and wrong adult gluttony. Looking across the table, Brian looked just as haggard as I felt, much like Brian-the-roommate from years back often looked after a long night out. And just like those bachelor years, there were suddenly no longer even any kids around. His kids had wandered off to explore the restaurant, long ago done eating and now surely bored with our mess of a meal. As for us, we briefly basked in the glory of the triumphant scale of our evening's gorging, then Brian quickly hurried off to find his kids.
There will always be debate on Denver's best Korean BBQ experience. Han Kang might not have the best sides, or the best marinade, but it is still very, very good. The friendly service and the charcoal grills are what make it a truly enjoyable experience.
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