Sammy Chon's K-Town BBQ Is a Bust From Start to Finish

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted Feb. 14, 2012

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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.

Cuisine: Korean.

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.

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Comments 1 - 10 of 10
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1. Michael G said... on Feb 15, 2012 at 09:47AM

“I completely agree that this place was awful. The chicken wings were soggy and bland. The koagie(ie Korean Hoagie) was dry and the pork wasn't spicy at all. They don't have table BBQ The banchan was awful the kimchee wasn't spicy and had an acidic aftertaste. The cucumber was off as well and that ham stuff didn't make it past the nose. I threw away 75% of this stuff and grabbed an Israel salad and some fallafel from a corner store. Stay away.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Feb 15, 2012 at 07:29PM

“I have to respectfully disagree with this review. Overall, I'd say this place is on par with any other Korean BBQ joints in Center City (The artist formerly known as Miran, Miga, etc). I can't speak for the full menu, but the BBQ is solid. As the author admits, the pork bulgogi was addictively good. The LA short rips were also quite tasty. I suspect Mr. Freedman may be experiencing some chain-bias. That is, because this restaurant is a chain (how boring!) from Jersey (the horror!), it must disappoint. Truth be told, in a blind taste test. you likely would not be able to differentiate the BBQ at this place from any other Center City establishment. You might even like it more. This place is worth a visit.”

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3. kani said... on Feb 16, 2012 at 03:32AM

“My first experience was take out and I was extremely surprised at how crispy their chicken wings were for having them sit in a container until I got home. Flavor was there along with crispiness. The "odd chemical note" might be the fermentation that you may not be used to perhaps? At the same time, everyone's experience is different. When I dined in, the pork bulgogi was not as spicy as I would have liked it to be, but it was still tasty. I enjoyed the jap chae as well, although I usually prefer it cold and not hot. The staff was super friendly and reheating the left overs was still tasty to me. Overall, I had a pleasant experience. And the k-pop videos/music was the cherry on top.... Just kidding on that part. But what's a Korean joint without k-pop anyway?”

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4. Daniel said... on Feb 16, 2012 at 03:33PM

“I can't believe people get paid to write this crap.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Feb 17, 2012 at 06:51PM

“I agree with writer. The food just doesnt taste like authentic korean food, Like what id eat at home but more Like a fast food version of it. Oh and I almost laughed at the portion sizes of their banchan.”

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6. Brandon S. said... on Feb 19, 2012 at 12:16PM

“I have brought many friends and family members to this establishment and unanimously everyone is looking forward to a return visit.

First, Mr. Freedman omitted to mention what level of spiciness he ordered his food. The waiter asks you how spicy you would like your food on a scale from one to five. Depending on how spicy you like your food, of course you will find the food lacking in spiciness if you requested a one or two. Undoubtedly, Sammy’s spicy diablo chicken wings are the best wings I have ever had in my life and I will definitely be ordering them in bulk for a football game next year. They are extra crunchy and the meat falls right off of the bone.

The dolsot is incredible as your food stays hot the entire duration of the meal and the egg cooks itself and creates extra crunchy rice on the bottom (drool). Mr. Freedman notes that this dish was bland, but again I ask him what level of spiciness he requested?”

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7. Ronald said... on Feb 19, 2012 at 12:20PM

“Ironically, the spicy pork bulgogi is my second favorite entrée on the menu, second only to the short-rib. It is perfection, especially ordered at level four. Yes, the meat is more fatty than the chicken or beef, but it will melt in your mouth.

I highly recommend to all diners to try the koagie for lunch or as an appetizer at dinner. The bread is fantastic, the meat is tasty, and the sauce they serve it with has a nice kick to it.

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8. Emma said... on Feb 23, 2012 at 04:27PM

“Are you seriously comparing KTown wings to Cafe Soho's wings? Soho's wings are a joke!

I also suggest you try the other dolsots, as bibimbap, with its steamed vegetables, is generally not as flavorful as say, the kalbi dolsot.”

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9. Gal Bi lover said... on Feb 29, 2012 at 12:44AM

“Having been married to a Korean for the last ten years, I eat this food 3-4 times a week. When I saw this new place I got so excited and took my wife the very next night. Well....the seafood Pa Jon was wimpy and devoid of any flavor. Oh well. Here comes the Gal bi!! Can't wait, looked great until I bit into a fatty chew flavorless piece of meat. And yes, they were all the same. I went to the hostess and complained about the quality of the meat. She stated to me "you must not be familiar with Korean food" At this point my very Korean looking wife laughed in her face. I said I was disgusted. She said, "Ok I'll send over another order for you". The waiter brought a plate of "3" pieces of Gal Bi, each the same fatty chewy disgusting meat as was first delivered. Again I complained with no result. I asked for a check and of course the charged me for the Gal Bi and the three extra pieces!!!”

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10. Love Gal Bi said... on Mar 3, 2012 at 10:13PM

“Just thought I'd mention, yesterday we tried a new little place called Wayjoes 21st and Chestnut, its the old Miran. What a great meal! Amazing hot hot and their Gal Bi is what Gal bi is supposed to be. Nice slices, NO CHUNKS OF FAT! Cooked and marinated superbly.”


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