By Giancarlo Buonomo, Summer Managing Arts Editor
Published June 4, 2014
Forgive me if the beginning of this review sounds like a personal essay, but then again, eating Korean barbecue is a very personal experience, seeing that you cook almost all of your food yourself on a custom grill built right into the table.
Tomukun Korean Barbecue
505 East Liberty Street
I first went to Tomukun Korean Barbecue at the beginning of May, only a week or two after it opened. The restaurant is adjacent to its wildly popular older sibling, Tomukun Noodle Bar, as well as Lab Cafe, turning the trio into the Ann Arbor version of Momofuku, the über-hip Asian food empire centered in New York City. After many attempts to get a table, I finally scored one with five other friends early one evening. Eager to to both experience Korean barbecue, and Tomukun’s take on it, I ordered us a “Combo 2” meat platter, which is six different types of marinated raw meat, accompanied by an assortment of sauces and garnishes.
It was a disaster, or at least it felt like one at the time. Six different hands were grabbing at the meat with the provided tongs and snipping off bite-sized pieces with the provided shears. When that proved too slow, some of us resorted to picking large pieces off the tray with our chopsticks and plopping it on the grill. With so many people trying to cook small pieces of meat at a time, the grill was soon lacquered with grease and scorched juice, and we began losing track of what was cooked and what needed more time. People began to jealously guard small squares of pork belly or short rib, holding chopsticks over them ready to swat away any wandering pair that dared snatch their baby. All the while, the pieces cooking piled up and stuck together as the smoking grill descended into a cross-contaminating, carnivorous clusterfuck. I went home and cried myself to sleep, lamenting my tragic inability to live up to Anthony Bourdain.
Okay, I’m kidding about that last part, but my first experience with Korean barbecue taught me a very important lesson: It’s a two way street. Your enjoyment of your meal is dependent on both you and the restaurant, and more specifically, you taking advantage of how well the restaurant facilitates the experience. And I am happy to report, based on subsequent visits, that Tomukun does an exceptional job of facilitating an exceptional experience.
Seeing that it’s Korean barbecue, the main focus of Tomukun is the meat — different cuts can be ordered à la carte, or as combo platters. But before your protein arrives, an assortment of little plates called banchan is brought out. Almost all of them are pickled, fermented or marinated vegetables, and they range from the simply delicious (cucumber kimchi), to the funky-but-good (marinated fish cakes), with a few “well, at least I tried it” (long beans with dried shrimp). Either way, these little amuse-bouches are excellent for priming your palate for the pile of flesh soon to be delivered to your table.
When it comes time to eat the meat, your server will turn on your grill, which is a gas flame sunk into the middle of the table, and covered with a perforated metal plate, sort of like a flat colander. When it heats up, they will then take a piece of pure beef fat and rub it on every inch of the grill.
This is where my whole “two way street” shtick comes in. Your dining experience will be substantially more enjoyable if you go with one or two people, and cook your meats one a time. The most basic platter, a “Combo 1,” feeds two to four people, and contains sliced beef brisket, spicy pork, and marinated short rib. By cooking them one at a time, and having only a few people, you’ll be able to savor each one without getting too competitive. I recommend eating the brisket first. The thin slices, which my friend compared to bacon made of beef, are best when lightly seared and then dipped in a little ramekin of salt and sesame oil — it’s a wonderful mouthful of umami. For the spicy pork and short rib, you should cut off small pieces and lay them a few at a time on the grill. Please, for god’s sake, wait until they’re cooked. Commit yourself to this protein power-hour, and you’ll be rewarded with the flavor of charred fat and caramelized marinade that only comes when high-quality meat is cooked over high heat. The included sides (cabbage salad and white rice) and sauces (sesame oil, miso and chili paste) shouldn’t be overlooked either.
You really should get barbecue. But if that’s not your bag, the offerings from the kitchen are stellar. For a starter, try the sweet potato noodles, which are like rice noodles but much earthier and chewier, and sauteed with sesame oil, vegetables and beef. For a main course, bibimbop is always a good option. Tomukun’s version is lighter and fresher than most in Ann Arbor, served with fresh bean sprouts and mushrooms, and of course, a runny egg.
There’s still much on the menu I would have liked to try, like the “Army Stew” hot-pot, which serves eight people and contains a smorgasbord of cross-cultural items like hot dogs, ramen noodles and rice cakes. But what I did experience, and must take time to compliment, is the absolutely superb service at Tomukun. Every server is not only knowledgable about the minutiae of the menu, but also extremely helpful in guiding you through the occasionally confusing, even nerve-wracking, task of cooking your own food.
Going to Tomukun Korean Barbecue for dinner isn’t exactly a relaxing experience. It requires commitment, patience, and even a sense of humor about yourself. It’s expensive, and the wait for a table can be maddening. You won’t pop in for a quick dinner. But that’s not what Tomukun Korean Barbecue is about. It’s an experience — an exciting, new, usually delicious and never boring experience.