Sizzle and snap went the meat, cradled in a cast-iron crib. Locomotive plumes of smoke rose from the dish of thin-cut short ribs, intensifying an already-thick fragrance of caramelized soy sauce, garlic and charred meat, a scent Sammy Chon's KTown BBQ emits like pheromones. I'd douse myself in this eau du kalbi if I wasn't afraid I'd chew my wrists off. The smell is that intoxicating, as is the rich, salty flavor it heralds.
Sammy Chon, this Korean barbecue's 36-year-old namesake, just opened the restaurant in Chinatown — he and his wife, Lisa, have locations in Cherry Hill and Cinnaminson — and already the joint is humming. The icy night I ducked in, a multicultural crowd filled the room, licking sticky sauces off their fingers from crispy Korean-style chicken wings, excavating big bowls of starchy jajang udon blanketed in savory black bean sauce. Servers crisscrossed the dining room with rolling carts, speedy as contestants on Supermarket Sweep.
Chon learned to cook traditional Korean recipes from his late grandmother before opening KTown (originally named Myung-Ga) in Cherry Hill. "Seven of my eight uncles are entrepreneurs, and so is my dad," he says. "Running own our businesses is in our blood." Chon is brand-savvy, with a strong social-media presence and finesse balancing the expectations of an American and Asian clientele.
The kitchen kept pace, except for the steamed dumplings, which needed more salt and less water in their chive-greened pork fillings. But from the kalbi and wings to the wicked black-bean noodles, everything else delivered. There was a pleasant seaweed salad dressed with sesame, and gochujang-enflamed bulgogi made with flavor-packed chicken thighs. The banchan featured rock-your-world bok choi kimchi and nutty Korean black beans.
My favorite was the soon dubu, a bubbling cauldron of beef broth and silky soft tofu spiced with a mix of gochujang, ground jalapeño and Thai bird chilies. The mushroom version introduced meaty shiitakes and delicate enokis, all crowned with a raw egg cracked onto the soup's blood-red surface.
Vegetarian or vegan? Chon will happily nix the egg and sub in veg stock for beef. He wants you to remember that, just like he wants you to remember his name. "Like David's Mai Lai Wah is David's," he says, "we are Sam's." Good to meet you, Sam.
Sammy Chon's KTown BBQ | 911 Race St., 215-574-1778, ktownbbq.com. Open Sun.-Thu., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Appetizers, $3.99-$10.99; entrées, $8.99-$19.99. BYOB.