A few bites in, the ribeye bulgogi burger tasted familiar.
Salty-sweet-spicy cucumber pickles provided a satisfying snap against supple ribeye steak, piled high and flame grilled, with a fragrant marinade. A drizzle of pepper-walloped bulgogi sauce carried the spicy funk I knew.
Those flavors were Cham.
That’s Cham Korean Garden, a popular Korean tabletop barbecue restaurant in Lakewood.
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That those delicious Korean pickles and ribeye bulgogi would come on the Korean fusion burgers at Build-A-Burger makes sense considering co-owners Danny and Timothy Pak are part of the family behind Cham.
Their parents — James and Yoon Hee Pak — founded Cham in 2007 and sold it to family friends last year (the restaurant continues to operate using Yoon Hee’s recipes).
James and Yoon Hee are “retired” from the restaurant business but still show up daily at Build-A-Burger to assist their sons.
Their sons have taken the family recipes and modified them to become suitable companions for burgers.
Build-A-Burger certainly isn’t the first to serve Korean-themed bulgogi burgers in Tacoma — Mimi Teriyaki, the Goofy Goose and, of course, the Burger Seoul food truck all have served bulgogi burgers — but I maintain Build-A-Burger’s versions are the tastiest Korean-American burger mash-up I’ve yet to try in the area.
Timothy and Danny opened their Build-A-Burger in July 2018 in a former Subway space on Tacoma Mall Boulevard. The concept is build-your-own American burgers, much like sandwiches are at Subway. Diners choose between an Angus burger, a chicken burger or veggie burger patty with a customizable list of more than 30 toppings. That list includes veggies, house-made sauces and cheeses.
Build-A-Burger landed a spot on my best new openings of 2018 because its burger execution is solid. The flame-licked burgers come with perfectly toasted buns, as many toppings as a diner can stomach and house-made sauces that go well beyond the usual fast food burger toppers (think: wasabi mayo).
That attention to detail carries over to the restaurant’s new Korean fusion burger menu, which the brothers launched two months ago along with Korean-themed loaded fries that also are a must-try.
“We wanted to get the burgers down before we expanded the menu,” said Danny Pak, who said that requests from former Cham customers also prompted the menu addition. “People are loving them.”
The Korean bulgogi burgers — ribeye beef or spicy pork — were outrageously delicious when ordered the way the Pak family suggests — with the house-made Korean kimchi pickles, the spicy bulgogi sauce and coleslaw punched up with wasabi dressing.
“The beef bulgogi is just like at Cham Garden,” said Pak. “But it’s better. We double marinate it. We marinate it overnight for 24 or more hours, then we char grill. We add more bulgogi sauce to it so that it’s flavorful.”
That double dose of sauce caramelizes into a sticky glaze on the tender, thin-sliced ribeye.
Pak recommends ordering the beef bulgogi burger with the spicy pickles, the coleslaw with wasabi dressing, spicy bulgogi dressing and any cheese other than blue cheese (too strong, he says). I ordered mine with pepperjack and grilled onions on one visit and with cucumber pickles, pepperjack and coleslaw on another ($6.49). Both were terrific. Char-grilling amped the beefiness of the ribeye, and that aromatic, ginger heavy marinade seesawed between salty and sweet. Pak also recommended, for a more traditional burger experience, the beef bulgogi burger with lettuce, onion, tomato and bell pepper for additional snap.
The spicy pork bulgogi burger came with a pile of tender pork that tasted long marinated.
“It’s the same marinade as we used at Cham Garden,” said Pak. “It’s messy, but it’s pretty awesome.”
Agreed. That marinade, colored deep red from a generous helping of red chile flakes, dripped out of the sandwich. I topped that pork burger with the Korean spicy pickles, grilled onions, coleslaw, pepperjack cheese and a double hit of the spicy bulgogi sauce ($5.99).
The chicken katsu burger is a Japanese-Korean-American mash-up. The Japanese-style katsu cutlet tasted deliciously crunchy. How’d they get it so crisp?
“We filet the chicken thigh, then we bread it in panko and then deep fry it until it’s super crispy outside and juicy inside,” said Pak.
I was glad I ordered it with the coleslaw and wasabi mayo but also the house katsu sauce, Korean spicy pickles, pepperjack cheese and grilled onions ($5.99). On one visit, the katsu filet flopped over the sides of the bun by about an inch. On another visit, that cutlet extended beyond the bun by a few more inches. That was a delightful bonus.
Those Korean loaded fries were built for sharing ($8.99 each). A pound of hot fries come piled with whatever burger topping you select, whether that’s beef or pork bulgogi, breaded katsu, an Angus burger patty or a chicken thigh.
Ask for extra cheese sauce.
“We make that with American, cheddar, cream and milk,” said Pak.
That sauce carried just the right level of goo. I topped off an order of bulgogi fries with spicy Korean pickles, fresh chopped onions, jalapenos and a squiggle of spicy bulgogi sauce. I pledge to return for the spicy pork loaded fries.
Just launched: The brothers just debuted a Korean Philly cheesesteak with bulgogi meat, grilled peppers and onions. They recommend topping it with the house cheese sauce.
Where: 5015 Tacoma Mall Blvd, Suite E-101, Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday