[ review ]
Snap. Crackle. Pop. The frost-stiffened rolls of raw brisket protested when they hit the charcoal gas grill.
A middle-aged Korean woman, short on words but long on smiles, conducted the personal barbecue. Armed with a pair of plastic black tongs she wielded like an archvillain's crab-clawed appendage, she unfurled the bolts of beef like Oriental rugs, flattening them into sheer scarlet slices on the searing domed surface. The scent of summer hit the air, rising to the pitched, wood-planked ceiling and fogging the glass shades of the pendants strung about the rafters.
I wish I were back there right now, there being Bobo's, a sports-bar-cum-barbecue that draws an almost exclusively Asian crowd to a forlorn corner of the Great Northeast. Two empty-nesters occupied the table across from us. A gaggle of club kids in tight jeans and nerd glasses filed in soon after. The barbecues were all going, built into each of the wood picnic tables that give this long, narrow room the look of a summer camp mess hall.
But the food at Bobo's is much, much more distinctive than your average Lake Anawanna fare. No Awful Waffles here, just tableside-cooked cuts of beef, pork and seafood, tucked into frilly red-spine romaine lettuce wraps with the traditional smorgasbord of spiced, pickled and fermented sides known in Korea as banchan.
There are stir-fries, hot pots and noodles, too, not to mention a seemingly insurmountable mountain of Korean fried chicken that turned out to not be so insurmountable after all. My table attacked the 2-pound plate of crispy, hot and spicy red-lacquered breasts, thighs and legs, our hands and faces eventually painted with the sticky crimson sauce. Honorees at a Dothraki fertility ritual? Nah, just four rapacious white kids.
We ate. And ate. And ate. Owner Young Kim is not in the habit of letting customers go hungry. She took over the floundering business a year ago — Bobo's has been open for eight — and made sweeping changes, among them upgrading the quality of meats, to the effect that, "the older customers that used to come here are coming back," according to Bobo's 28-year-old manager, a Korean-American former Marine and aspiring fashion designer who also happens to be named Young Kim. Thanks to him, Bobo's has Midas Touch, Delirium Tremens and 30 other craft beers and imports; a plan to begin sourcing meats organically and locally; house-infused soju; and a Twitter account, which is how I found my way here. One thing that hasn't changed is the chef, who's been cooking at Bobo's since it opened and whose name is unknown. "We just call her Auntie No. 2," manager Kim explains. The owner is Auntie No. 1. The woman tending my barbecue? Auntie No. 3. It's a sign of respect in Korean culture, though one, I imagine, that could get confusing. (As if two Young Kims isnt confusing enough.)
Ordering is also a little confusing, not to mention pricier than you might think, especially for the barbecue packages, which escalate to $50 and $60. And it's not like the taciturn menu offers much in the way of qualifying info. Is the price for the whole table or per person? Which of the 'cues include the footnote-mentioned mussel soup and udon noodles? Of course, to the empty-nesters across from us and the club kids a few tables down, to most of Bobo's clientele, the knowledge is likely innate, the codes implicit.
I'd been to Korean barbecue before, sure, but never one this unassisted. If our halting questions about which condiments went with which meats didn't make us look like misguided rookies, then our scarfing down of sharp, sesame-oil-soothed shaved-scallion salads probably did. Auntie No. 3, now onto searing belts of pork belly dusted in green tea powder (not as moving as I'd hoped), offered an amused smile. Then she picked up a mitt of lettuce, laid a square of brisket in its palm along with a dab of spicy fermented bean paste, a slice of pickled ivory daikon and the leafy dredges of the salad I'd just devoured and placed the neat wrap, almost maternally, in my grubby paws. Then she brought a second round of salads. Banchan is to Korean barbecue what endless salad and breadsticks are to Olive Garden.
Of the barbied meats, the prime rib was the resounding favorite, marinated 48 hours in a brew featuring soy, sesame oil, scallion, kiwi fruit and secret ingredients known only to Auntie No. 2 and her matriarchal posse. Sweet and sour white onions added punch and salinity to the less thrilling pork belly. I also enjoyed the matcha-sprinkled pig with a bit of gyeran jjim, the silky steamed egg custard percolating in a neat clay chamber. Breakfast written all over it! "The egg is palate cleanser," Kim explains. "Like ginger with sushi." Oops.
Oh! The kimchi. Bobo's is the best I've had: crunchy, ripe and really hot. The hunks of fermented cabbage aren't the only areas where Auntie No. 2 deploys high-octane levels of spice. Several breeds of fresh and dried chilies — Auntie No. 1 smuggles some home from biannual trips to Korea — unite to form the hot sauce that ignites stir-fried chicken gizzards (little too tough, almost crunchy) and crosshatched squid (firm perfection) over threadlike rice noodles. Nutty, earthworm-brown buckwheat noodles seemed to squirm in a sinus-clearing horseradish sauce, wriggling around hard-cooked eggs, Anjou pears and quick-pickled cukes. The whole thing's served over crushed ice, a savory buckwheat snow cone.
There's little in the way of dessert, though Kim says that's coming soon. For now, do how I do after a workout at Planet Fitness: Raid the fishbowl full of free Tootsie Roll Midgees sitting by Auntie No. 3's register. Just like a real auntie, she pretended not to notice.
Bobo's | 6424 Castor Ave., 215-743-9900, twitter.com/BobosBarPhilly. Open daily, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; bar Mon.-Sat., 7 p.m.-2 a.m. Appetizers, $8.95-$13.95; entrées, $9.95-$39.95; barbecue, $9.95-$69.95.