Review: 9292 Korean BBQ brings the heat

What is it about fire and meat? Do we really have so much in common with our caveman ancestors that the merest glimpse of glowing embers near a cut of beef can fill us with hope and hunger? For me, it is an odd reflex, a feeling more complicated than simple appetite, more elemental than culinary knowledge, and I’m not sure what to call it. But I do know I felt it the moment our charcoal arrived at 9292 Korean BBQ in Duluth.

The embers of burning wood arrived already glowing red, carried at the end of a long utensil perhaps best described as a giant ladle full of charcoal, and deposited into the center of our table’s grill. The flourish of deliveries that followed was overwhelming: nearly a dozen plates of banchan (side dishes of pickled radishes, kimchi, romaine salad and sticky sweet peanuts, among other delights), bottles of Kloud beer, a cast-iron ring set around the grill to warm up sides of bean sprouts, corn and scrambled eggs, and a platter of raw meat big enough to be a butcher’s display.

If you’re familiar with Korean-style barbecue, you probably know this drill. This is a place that rewards over-ordering. Technically, one can order a single dish at such a restaurant. At lunch time at 9292, this isn’t even a bad idea. The menu has a long selection of soups and single-serving bowls, from a rather traditional bibimbap bowl topped with a runny egg to a spicy, rich, beef-laden yukgaejang dumpling soup. But to order that way is to miss the point of a place like this.

9292 is a restaurant built to fit Korean-style barbecue’s qualities of elaborate, massive service. The tables and booths are unusually long and spacious, made for seating crowds of friends and holding dozens of little plates. At the center of each table are those metallic grills, and above them are large, polished steel exhaust hoods for sucking away the inevitable smoke.

The way to order at 9292 is to choose from one of several combination or all-you-can-eat meals, each of which will provide a handful of different cuts of meat to sear across that tabletop charcoal. The server who brings those many plates and meat-laden platters to you will also serve as a kind of tableside cook, flipping and cutting meat as needed over the charcoal. It isn’t the kind of silly, theatrical performance that sometimes happens at hibachi restaurants, but it is a little bit of a show.

You’ll likely have beef brisket among your order, shaved, as is the tradition, into fat-speckled paper-thin ribbons. It is perhaps the most simple of KBBQ meats, a tough cut transformed into a tender bite through thin-slicing and a quick sear. Well, it should be a fairly quick sear. On one occasion, the fat rendering out from our brisket at 9292 led to a massive flare-up of fire that required a little work from our tableside cook to subdue. It was a fun show, to be honest, but it left our brisket a little too charred. In short, this is not polished service, but your tableside cook will get the job done.

Results were much better with the rib-eye. At about a half-inch thick, I wouldn’t call this cut steakhouse material, but the marbled, tender meat was still thick enough to catch a caramelized, golden-brown crust and still be a warm mid-rare in the center. Once finished, the cook will chop up this item with a pair of scissors, leaving plenty of bite-size pieces to share among the table. You can dredge one of those bites in one of the salty or sweet sauces that accompany the table or make use of the banchan. In particular, a plate of gochujang-spiked scallions makes for a nice pair with that crispy rib-eye.

With all of this meat on the grill, don’t neglect the food-filled cast-iron ring around it. At one point, our server had to remind us as such. It is filled, over three sections, with an absurd combo of shredded cheese and corn, scrambled egg and scallions, and kimchi bean sprouts and cabbage. As the charcoal heats up the ring, that shredded cheese and corn melts into a bubbling mess, the scrambled eggs fluff up, and the kimchi warms up. I nibbled at each individually before piling all three together for a gooey, eggy, crunchy combo.

Another bit of advice is to pace yourself. A meal like this isn’t meant to be inhaled all at once, which is why your server cooks each selection of meat individually on the grill, so that the meal stretches on into four-, five-, or six-course range. Sip on a bottle of easy-drinking Kloud beer. Pause to enjoy the bright crunchy pleasure of pickled daikon radish. Look around at all of the other tables loaded up with plates. Heck, Instagram a shot or two. The pleasure here is visual, too.

The highlight for you may be the kalbi, a cut of deboned short ribs, scored and marinated for tenderness. The flavors, both salty and sweet, that dominate the marinade are complemented by the smoky touch of charcoal that crisps them on the grill. Or it might be the simple, fatty strips of pork belly. Your cook will switch from an open grill to a flat, almost-closed top for maximum fatty-crispness while cooking up the pork belly. As with most meats at 9292, these are not choice cuts but, like the service, they get the job done.

For me, though, the surprise highlight at 9292 wasn’t even the meat at all. For a couple of the special combos, after all those rich meats, 9292 delivers a flat cast-iron skillet filled with a thin layer of fried rice seemingly coated in radish kimchi. Placed atop the charcoal, the skillet crisps the rice into a caramelized crust, the way a paella pan develops a thick socarrat at the base. It is the spiciest bite you’ll have at 9292, the kind of thing that’s worth waiting for.

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