At a Korean restaurant, the most anticipated moment comes right before the banchan arrive. The waiter heading to your table with his tray of side dishes—the kimchee, the o-deng rice cakes, perhaps some kaktugi radish cubes and more—is essentially your greeting, and generally a reliable indication of how the remainder of the meal will fare. In this sense, it’s like visiting a new friend’s house for a first dinner party: Smart hors d’oeuvres? You’re in for a nice night. Microwaved pigs in a blanket? Expect to be dialing for pizza delivery on the way home.
So it was with no shortage of disappointment that I first laid eyes on the banchan at the new Chinatown location of Sammy Chon’s K-Town BBQ. Kimchee, all glowing reds in its dish, was marred by an odd chemical note. Despite this, it was the banchan highlight.
Inexplicable macaroni salad crowded the table alongside it, soggy-noodled and supermarket-tasting. “Corn slaw”—really little more than characterless corn with mayo, onions, carrots and a few other middling accouterments—would have been a letdown at a poorly catered company picnic, let alone here. Stir-fried ham cubes tasted like the unfortunate lovechild of Spam and old tofu. I only knew it was ham because I asked a waitress. She said most customers think it is some kind of tofu, to which I desperately wanted to scream, “Then change the damn recipe!”
Things improved only slightly from there.
Flaccid seafood pancake could have come directly from a bad Atlantic City buffet. It was a sponge for not-hot-enough oil, and its rubber-band calamari and commas of diminutive shrimp managed, depressingly, to be its highlights.
Chicken wings were better, but still nowhere near the level of Cafe SoHo or Bobo’s Sports Bar. The rice-flour-crispy skin was there, and the flesh was tender and moist, but the application of a soupy garlic soy sauce meant that they had to be eaten quickly enough so the liquid didn’t have time to make the whole dish a soggy affair.
But at least the flavor of those wings was pleasant, as was the case with the kimchee jiggae. If you go to Sammy Chon’s for one thing, it should be this kimchee—pork stew, all cabbage-funky and tingling hot. With a beer or a Riesling (they’re BOYB for now, though not much longer), it’s a great one-bowl meal.
The other side of the flavor spectrum, however, was occupied by the characterless dolsot bibimbap, a bland congregation of vegetables, shredded beef and an egg that, even with a hefty application of gochujang chili paste, tasted like very little. Even the caramelized bits that leaned up against the bowl the longest were relatively devoid of personality.
Then there’s the case of the spicy pork bulgogi, which, in hindsight, was as close to a perfect embodiment of the science of eating unhealthily as you’ll find. Put simply: It wasn’t very good, but I couldn’t stop eating it. The pork—sweet, salty, vaguely spicy and glistening in its oily dish—tasted remarkably similar to taco meat seasoned with one of those flavor packets that come with the shells. Like a bag of Doritos or a fast-food burger hitting all the receptors, it kept sending signals to my mouth to keep chewing!
Sammy Chon’s has been successful enough in New Jersey, both in Cinnaminson and Cherry Hill. But to serve such middling food in the heart of our generally excellent Chinatown is a bad idea. I hope the quality improves here, but the problems seem to be systemic rather than the result of bad execution. The underwhelming banchan you start with here is an accurate harbinger of disappointing things to come.
911 Race St. 215.574.1778. ktownbbq.com
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-3am (once the liquor license is official).
Price range: $4.95-$21.95. (BBQ sets are more.)
Atmosphere: Simple and open.
Food: Generally underwhelming.
Service: Friendly and outgoing.
What a yoke: Dolsot Bibimbap is a bland congregation of vegetables, beef and an egg.