Charmed, I’m sure: Complex flavors of Korean barbecue shine at Charm

There are traditions around Texas barbecue: butcher paper, the scent of smoldering post oak, a cold Big Red or Lone Star and, increasingly, a wait in line.

Korean barbecue traditions are a little different. They include a dining table with a centerpiece grill, a pair of scissors and tongs, a dazzling assortment of often pungent side dishes and the excitement that precedes the arrival of a tray colored with various shades of raw and marinated meat.

Your server fires up the gas grill, which resembles a hubcap with little holes for the flames to escape, and soon returns with your selection of meats. She gently drapes the pork and beef around the outside ring of the grill and leaves you to play amateur line cook.

Those with shaky grill skills needn’t fear shaming; she’ll return soon, grab the tongs and start flipping and spinning the meat, intrinsically keen on cooking times. She’ll swoop in at the last minute like a camp counselor lifting an almost carbonized hot dog from a fire and use the scissors to cut your glistening, sticky-sweet pork belly into snackable bites. All the while the enchanting aroma wafts up and into the hood affixed over your table.

While only a handful of Korean barbecue restaurants exist in Austin, the dining ritual and cuisine are commonplace at hundreds of restaurants in Los Angeles. It is from that city’s Koreatown, a joyously raucous food wonderland, that Charm Korean BBQ owner Jason Kim took the inspiration for the restaurant he opened at Howard Lane and Interstate 35 in the spring of 2016. The Jeonju, Korea, native who moved to Austin 18 years ago and who works for a technology company that contracts with Samsung obviously saw the way the eager masses huddled around the fragrant sizzle and smoke.

If you’ve had any of the Korean fusion food that has been popularized across the country over the past decade, you’re aware of bulgogi, the grilled meat that is marinated in an umami-bomb elixir of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and black pepper. It is an intoxicating blend that leads to caramelized meat that sticks to the gas-fueled tabletop grills (unlike some Korean barbecue restaurants, Charm does not use any charcoal).

Those bulgogi flavors danced across the hot grill and lapped up against the edges of fatty pork belly sliced thin and marinated in a mildly spicy bath. The longer the pork cooked — the fat rendering down and the edges crisping and curling — the better it got. The last sticky remains we plucked from the grill were like pieces of pork taffy. I had all but forsaken that cut of meat until my last visit to Charm.

You can order an all-you-can eat assortment of about a half-dozen meats, ranging from beef belly to pork belly and bulgogi, for $24.99 ($17.99 for children ages 5-11) and upgrade to a premium menu that adds prime rib, marinated short rib, beef tongue and more for $34.99 ($24.99 for kids). You can also order several of the meats individually for between $12.99 and $15.99 per entree. The pork and beef bulgogi are the obvious draws with their salty-sweet tang, but if you want a more traditional beefy flavor, opt for the bubble-gum-colored twirls of brisket.

The best bet is to eat here at lunch, when you can get 12 ounces of one or two meats for $15.99, with a half-dozen options that include beef short rib, pork shoulder and bulgogi. The small accompanying side dishes are called banchan. Some of the biggest hits at Charm: an exceptional quick-pickled kimchi breathy with fish sauce and dried shrimp; the Korean staple radish in a tart vinaigrette; briefly steamed broccoli in a sour gochujang pepper sauce spiked with (I believe) horseradish; and the funky tug of fish cakes. Oh, yeah, and hot dogs. You’ll see.

Another bifurcated saucer had a dream team duo that I want to keep in my kitchen or take with me anywhere I eat meat. On one side, the toasty pull of sesame oil; on the other, a fermented soybean paste like Japanese miso called doenjang.

My favorite bite of meat this year was also my first encounter with the dish. A lunch special called tteok galbi ($12.99) featured short rib meat that had been pulled from the bone, ground to a coarse finish and seasoned with soy, sesame and aromatics, packed back around the bone and grilled to a finish somewhere between a burger and meatloaf. Pull hunks of meat from the bone, dab it with the nutty fermented soybean paste and slick it with sesame oil. It’s crazy good. The bento box comes with a few pan-fried dumplings, orange sections, glassy noodles and enoki mushrooms.

While the Korean barbecue is the main attraction at Charm, it is far from the only one. Some of the tables in the clean, casual space that looks like a strange Tex-Mex/Italian hybrid don’t even have grills. Traditional Korean noodle, stew, stir-fry and mixed rice bowls make up the rest of the robust menu. You can taste the smoke from the wok on a dish of japchae ($10.99), translucent sweet potato noodles sheened with sesame oil and tangled in a vibrant mix of red and green peppers. While I expected those noodles and the scallion and kimchi pancakes ($9.99), I was surprised to find a creamed sweet corn appetizer blanketed with melted cheese ($7.99) on a skillet. I figured the dish was solely intended for lip service to Western palates, but Kim says it has gained popularity recently in Korea. Whatever its reason for existence, it seems to make good sense as a Korean barbecue analogue to the corn you’d find at a restaurant serving Texas-style barbecue.

One of the beauties of Korean food is the way in which it can help you rethink ingredients and your relationship with flavor profiles. Any omnivore can be easily won over with umami blasts of juicy grilled meat, but finding excitement in exploring myriad preparations of radish, savoring the complexity and appeal of fermented peppers and soybeans and appreciating the versatility of sesame proves the eclectic Korean cuisine’s allure and uniqueness.

Our server on multiple visits, as all the employees do, instructed us to call her “Emo,” which means “aunt” in Korean, and she imbued meals with a familial warmth, guiding us through the menu and discussing its nuances. What appeared to be chard or collard greens in kimchi jjigae (stew) was perilla leaf, a green popular in Korean cooking that gave a licorice whip to a broth infused with flavors of simmering pork neck and a liberal scattering of black sesame seeds ($10.99). And she led us to a dish of tender stir-fried octopus ($14.99) colored with charred green onions, jalapenos and zucchini and buzzing with fermented chili sauce.

There is a consistent herbaceousness, vegetal glow, toasty umami and fermented funkiness that weave through the dishes at Charm. But the food never feels redundant or uniform. A sizzling molten bowl of bibimbap, with crispy rice clinging to the bottom of the stone bowl like socarrat in a paella ($10.99), stands in sharp contrast to bibim-naengmyeon ($12.99), a bowl of thin-sliced beef, slivered cucumber, boiled egg and hearty buckwheat noodles surrounded by poured-over cold kimchi broth that blended vinegar and red pepper paste for a shimmering and quickly evaporating sting.

Koreans aren’t big on dessert, Emo told us near the end of a late lunch, as her co-workers shared a post-shift meal together in one of the private dining rooms while one diligent co-worker hand-wrapped dumplings with minced beef and aromatics for steaming. But you can hack that. Just order the galbi-jjim ($29.99), another dish that surprised with its complexity, freshness and technique. While it’s described as a short rib stew, the viscous liquid at the bottom of the dish that holds radish, hunks of fibrous beef, bulbous water chestnuts, streamers of egg and coquettish lashes made of dried pepper strands is more like a complex beef caramel sweetened with dates. If Buc-ee’s ever opens in Korea, they could use it to sweeten their Beaver Nuggets and start a whole new tradition.

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