Grill, baby, grill. That's a refrain we can all get behind, regardless of political views, at King BBQ in Canton. For one thing, there are few foods more satisfying than Korean barbecue, the restaurant's specialty. It speaks to both our inner caveman (meat, fire, gooood) and our more delicate impulses (filling wrapped in lettuce leaf for nibbling, why, it's practically a finger sandwich). For another, there aren't a lot of restaurant options in the area, and this one fills several niches at once. It's casual but still nicely decorated, good for families or a seventh date (bright lighting, intense garlic breath, and the odor of charred beef in your hair and clothes might kill the romance any earlier), and open for lunch for those who work in the area.
King BBQ opened nearly two months ago, but things already run fairly smoothly. Owner Jane Cho has experience on the local Korean barbecue scene. Years ago she operated New Jang Su, a similar restaurant in Burlington. She also runs Jane's Salad & Buffet in the Financial District. (King BBQ features a buffet, too.)
If you choose to barbecue at King, you'll be seated at one of the grill tables under a gleaming metal hood that attempts to suck up the fumes from cooking. It mostly works, but when King BBQ is hopping, it can get a bit smoky in the room. (The grills are gas, not charcoal, as you sometimes find in other cities and which imparts better flavor.) One of the friendly staff will come around to turn on the grill, answer any questions, crack a few jokes, and cook up any meat and vegetables you've ordered. There's a minimum of two barbecue orders per table, the entrance price to make it worth lighting the grill.
Korean barbecue of beef with a bowl of white rice and some kimchi may be one of the world's perfect meals. Thus, bulgogi is a must order. Thin-sliced, marinated pieces of rib eye get thrown on the grill, cooking quickly, their edges crisping in the heat. When the beef is done, you place hot pieces on cool lettuce leaves, smear with funky soybean paste, roll up into a little bundle, and bite. (Sometimes you also get a bowl of raw garlic cloves, sometimes you don't.) The different temperatures, the crunch of lettuce against the chew of beef, and the sweetness of the bulgogi's caramelized edges against the salt of the bean paste make this addictive. Gal bi, or short ribs, are a thicker, meatier, and chewier take, snipped with shears at the table by your server.
Spicy squid sounds better than it is - like many of the dishes that promise to be spicy at King BBQ, it's tongue-tingling but fails to bring real fire. On the grill, the squid gets incredibly chewy. For more conservative eaters, there's teriyaki chicken, a passable version brushed in sweet sauce. It can get dried out while cooking, so you have to monitor it closely.
But all is not barbecue here. One of the best things on the menu is the seafood casserole for two. It's cooked in a hot pot at your table, a mash-up of shrimp, fish, squid, clams, tofu, noodles, and vegetables in an addictive red broth. This is spicier than the squid, enough to make you sniffle as you fill your bowl again and again, a perfect cold remedy. It just might be the Korean equivalent of chicken soup. Tofu jigae, a bean curd-oriented stew that features a similar broth, is not quite as stunning, but it's a good option for those who want their spicy broth in a smaller serving.
There are several takes on bibimbap - the standard cooked beef, one with raw beef, one with eel, and hot stone pot bibimbap. The last is rice with beef, spinach, bean sprouts, and other vegetables, tossed in a sizzling stone pot with an egg that finishes cooking in the bowl. You can slather your portion with as much or as little gochujang (chili paste) as you like. The rice forms a crust against the hot stone; the crunchy bits are the best part. A staff member dishes out some for each person at our table, then at the end thoughtfully adds a final spoonful of crunchy rice to the bowl of the first person she served. It's only fair - the crust takes a bit of time to form, and she doesn't want to shortchange anyone.
Still, a few dishes fall short. Japchae, the wonderfully springy potato noodles, is bland. Octopus bokkum is bright red but barely spicy, and the little tentacles are tough. (That doesn't stop a teenager excited to try his first octopus from downing most of the dish.) Mung bean pancakes, a traditional dish made from mung beans ground on a special stone device, sound more interesting than they are; they're very fried, and taste much like other fried pancakes you may have eaten at other Asian restaurants.
But for the most part, the food at King hits the spot, particularly on a cold night. ("That was one of the best meals of my life," declares the newly minted octopus fan afterward.) There's a decent array of banchan, the small side dishes served with the meal, and no inauthentic potato-and-mayonnaise-type offerings. And there's beer to wash it all down, as well as baekseju, an alcoholic beverage made from rice, herbs, and ginseng. The name means "100-year wine," and it's supposed to help you live that long. Couldn't hurt.
Dessert is a dish of complimentary orange slices, followed by mints from the bowl by the door. Take a few. You'll need them if you want to make it to the eighth date.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.