TNT Diner

Korean dining: Taking a bite out of two new Lakewood restaurants

Last year, I took readers on a tour of Lakewood’s vast Korean dining scene. The four-part dining series took a bite out of every Korean restaurant, cafe, bar and grocery store along South Tacoma Way.

Don’t panic: You’re not going to be regaled with another month-long analysis of bulgogi and banchan. This report will be brief.

Since last summer, a tabletop grilling restaurant and a soup shop have opened on South Tacoma Way. Take a tour with me.

Want to read my entire Korean dining guide from 2012? Here are the stories:Korean barbecue, a guide for first-timersSoup shops of South Tacoma WaySticky, delicious chicken and ingredient expeditions to Korean grocery storesThe sweeter side of Korean dining - Korean bakeries

The newly opened HMart has a familiar tenant - Lakewood's Olive Bakery.

Gangnam BBQWhere: 9104 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-581-1200, Serving lunch and dinner daily.

Much like its neighboring Korean tabletop barbecue restaurants, Gangnam BBQ is an ideal destination for group or family dining. Lakewood’s newest Korean barbecue restaurant opened in November where Honey Pig operated and within walking distance of Korean tabletop grill restaurants O-bok, Chung Ki Wa and Palace BBQ.

Gil Gallegos and his wife, Tu Nam, operate a restaurant very similar in spirit to Honey Pig: Diners cook raw meats and vegetables over tabletop grills. Gallegos is retired from a longtime position with Tacoma Public Utilities. Nam ran a gift and collectibles shop in Lakewood. How did two non-restaurant people wind up owning a restaurant? They both love food, said Gallegos. Tu Nam’s brother owns nearby Cheong Guk Jang (read more about it below).

The scene: Spacious high-backed wooden booths are scattered across a warm dining room outfitted in earth tones. Copper venting hoods are as much a part of the decor as they are a necessity in a restaurant where diners cook their own meats on a gas grill. This is a lovely restaurant with spacious tables, making it a destination for group dining. Because Korean restaurant meals can include at least 20 plates of food, roomier tables make for easier dining.

The menu: Like other Lakewood tabletop grilling restaurants, the menu at Gangnam reads just like what you’d order at a tabletop restaurant in Seoul. Choose from a list of a la carte meats: different cuts of pork, chicken and beef, at $13.95-$22.95 per meat, keeping in mind that one-two diners can feast on a single plate of meat. Or order combination platters with several kinds of meat, $30.95-$79.95 (these combinations serve three-four or more). There’s also a $19.95-per-person, all-you-can-eat option, which Gallegos said is the most popular style of barbecue ordered at Gangnam.

Dining style: The meat is brought to the table raw. A server will get you started with grilling the meat on a metal grate set over gas flame, but diners can cook and eat at their own pace. Dinners come with a bowl of rice, a spicy jalepeno-flecked soybean soup, and seven kinds of banchan (small bowls of pickled vegetables) that will be refilled as many times as you ask. Dinners are served with the fixings for rice wraps: thin slices of daikon into which diners can tuck grilled meats, rice, banchan, and doenjang (a soybean paste) to make tiny “tacos.” The restaurant also offers lettuce leaves, by request, to assemble rice wraps.

Keep it safe: Use one set of tongs for the raw meat, one to serve the cooked meat. If your grill grate gets dirty and the meat sticks, you can ask for a clean grill. Use the kitchen shears to cut meat.Healthy tip: Substitute the more healthful purple rice, which comes mixed with beans, instead of white rice.

My meal: My party of four opted for a medium-size combination platter, which at $59.95 was less expensive than the all-you-can-eat option. The combination came with a platter layered with five meats: thick-sliced pork belly, thin-sliced brisket, seasoned pork, beef and spareribs. All meats sampled tasted tender, and well seasoned.What about that name? Are the owners from the Gangnam District in Seoul? Or maybe they’re Psy fans? None of the above. Owner Gallegos told me that a worker at nearby Boo Han market suggested the name and he and his wife liked the sound of it. I resisted the urge to dance Gangnam style in the dining room.

Cheong Guk Jang

Tacoma Cheong Guk JangWhere: 8797 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-581-1150

Don’t let the jarring yellow exterior and flashing reader board fool you. Tacoma Cheong Guk Jang is not a convenience store. It’s a rather unexpected and delicious find in the heart of Lakewood’s Korean eating district, near Chung Ki Wa and Olympus Women’s Spa.

In Ho Song, whose sister owns Gangnam BBQ across the street, opened the restaurant last summer with his wife, Ying Ji Ju, the restaurant’s chef. Cheong Guk Jang is named after the assertive fermented soybean paste and the soup of the same name. (It’s on the menu for $7.99. Be warned, it’s flavor punched.)

The scene: The space formerly held another soup restaurant. The new restaurant still carries the same bones, but the dining room has been lightened and brightened with paint and stylish decor. You’ll find lots of wood wrapping the dining room, accent lighting and wooden chairs with backs wrapped in fabric.

The menu: Soup, soup and more soup. Three solid pages of choices – all around $7-$9 – with a few pages of more costly grilled and rice-based dishes. Dumpling soup ($8.99) was Korean comfort eating at its finest with wispy dumplings floating in a mild broth. Assertive spicy shredded beef stew ($7.99) nearly induced a coughing fit with every pepper-fueled bite. The homemade noodle and rounded potato soup ($7.99) came with chewy pull from slippery noodles paired with dark rounds of grated potato that tasted something like Korean gnocchi. Soups came with rice (including the option for the purple/brown rice) and eight dishes of banchan. Spike your soup with flavor from a condiment tray on every table.

If you don’t get soup: Order the kalbi, grilled beef short ribs, for $19.99.