TNT Diner

A barbecue restaurant opens in Lakewood’s Korean dining district

A tabletop barbecue is how meats and vegetables are cooked at a Korean barbecue restaurant.
A tabletop barbecue is how meats and vegetables are cooked at a Korean barbecue restaurant.

It was the end of a incredibly long restaurant career for Sun Ok Chung when she closed her 27-year-old Korean barbecue restaurant, O-bok, in late October.

Not only did she operate the restaurant as a single mother, but at the time of its opening, the restaurant was one of few Korean-owned businesses in the neighborhood.

Now, of course, that stretch of Lakewood is known as the Korean dining district, a restaurant neighborhood offering Korean barbecue, bibimbap, soondubu, Korean fried chicken and four Korean grocery stores.

Chung’s daughter, Hyun Choi, called her mother’s retirement, “bittersweet.” But, “we are so excited for mom to get some rest.”

About a month after O-bok closed, a new restaurant opened in its space. The new owners, unrelated to Chung, kept the restaurant very similar to O-bok.

Gil Mok Korean Barbecue Restaurant is a combination barbecue and Korean restaurant with five tabletops for barbecuing and a handful of other tables for dining from a menu of noodles, soups, stews and bibimbap.

The restaurant opened the first week of December. Here’s a quick first look. It’s this newspaper’s policy to avoid criticism of food and service in a restaurant’s first month.

The decor: The footprint remains about the same as O-bok, but the dining room looks freshened up with a new coat of vivid green paint.

How does Korean barbecue work? For neophytes, it’s a do-it-yourself adventure in which servers bring platters of meat (order from the a la carte or combination menus), which you or the server will grill on a tabletop cooker.

The platters are accompanied by a cascading assortment of dishes, including pickled vegetables (banchan), sauces (sweet and salty, plus gochujang), nibbles and small appetizer plates, soup, bowls of rice and sometimes lettuce leaves or another kind of wrapper to make a bite-size purse of ingredients.

Grilled meats menu: Gil Mok offers 16 choices of a la carte tabletop barbecue meat and fish platters. Meat platters range from $13.99 for mackerel to $17.99 for chicken and $30.99 for kalbi beef ribs. The list also includes pork shoulder ($24.99), beef bulgogi ($20.99), brisket ($19.99), sole ($13.99) and pork belly ($19.99).

Combinations: Page two of the menu features combo platters for group dining. We ordered Combo 1 ($45.95) with pork belly, kalbi and brisket. It was enough for two-three diners. The other combination ($79.99) was built for a group, with kalbi, brisket, pork belly, pork bulgogi, chicken bulgogi and ribeye.

The meal: Our combination meal started with an array of eight banchan, those little dishes of pickled vegetables. There was spicy-pungent cabbage kimchi and soft potato in a sweet soy sauce. A tiny bowl of cold spinach coated in sesame, and shredded daikon held the same spiciness as the kimchi. Seaweed tasted of the sea, while bean threads were doctored with carrots and a splash of spice. Dried squid in a spicy-sweet sauce will be an acquired texture for some. Prepare to ask for refills on the jiggly tofu doused with soy.

Next came a fried pancake laden with vegetables, cut into tasty wedges.

Raw mushrooms, onions, jalapenos and garlic, all meant for grilling, arrived next. Then came sweet soy sauce and gochujang paste. And then rice.

The platter of raw meat followed, with a pile of brisket that our server cut into paper-thin slices that spilled onto the metal grate set atop a gas burner. She turned and turned the meat until it was sizzle-edged and smoking hot. Thick-sliced pork belly was next. It arrived scored, making it easier to cut when fully cooked. I dipped it into gochujang before savoring the fatty edges of the flavorful pork. Beef ribs were last, coated in a salty-sweet marinade, and were delicious with the grilled vegetables plucked from the grill.

The meal ended with a terrific spice-punched soybean paste stew thick with tofu, shredded carrot and zucchini.

If you grill your own: The restaurant wasn’t busy on our visit, which meant a staffer had time to cook our meat for us. If you’re left to your own devices, a few things to remember. Don’t overcrowd the grill. Don’t cross-contaminate. Use one set of tongs for raw meats, then use your chopsticks or ask for a clean set of tongs to pluck the fully cooked meat from the grill.

Here are some more menu choices:

Bibimbap: Nine bibimbap versions listed, including tofu, kimchi, bulgogi, chicken and seafood ($8.99-$10.99).

Soups: 14 items, including the usual soondubu (spicy tofu soup), yukgaejang (spicy beef soup) and doenjang jjigae (soybean paste stew). $8.99-$13.95.

More: Braised dishes, noodle dishes and lunch specials round out the menu.

Beverages: Korean beer and soju.

Other Lakewood Korean barbecue restaurants: Cham Garden Korean BBQ, Palace BBQ, Chung Ki Wa and Gangnam BBQ.

Gil Mok Korean Barbecue Restaurant

Where: 8534 South Tacoma Way; 253-582-6713.