Going out to eat this summer felt mainly like work, and even the better restaurants failed to display or arouse any passion. The antidote for these doldrums turned out to be a sweltering, soul-nourishing meal of Korean barbecue at Jong Kak (18 W. 20th St.,  837-5231). Gathering at a table around your own personal meat, sweating from the heat and the spice—this is a happy fun-time pleasure. Korean barbecue is big news in other cities, not so much here, where Jong Kak has cornered the market. And if you’re new in town and want to ramp up, or at least test out, some emerging friendships, start here.
Jong Kak is one of only two Korean restaurants, along with the beloved Nam Kang, remaining in a gritty patch of Lower Charles Village that once looked poised to blossom into a thriving Koreatown. Jong Kak isn’t much too look at, outside or inside. If it’s a little disheveled looking, it’s bright, clean, and comfortable. The spare, tile-floor interior is divided into two rectangular dining rooms, one of which is devoted to the pleasures of tabletop Korean barbecues.
On a busy Sunday night, Jong Kak’s clientele is split about 80-20 between Korean-American and non-Korean customers, and neighboring tables take a politely skeptical interest in the ordering, performance, and table manners of the uninitiated. It’s easy to feel instantly overwhelmed by Jong Kak’s extensive menu, which in addition to lengthy Korean barbecue listings, features an extensive listing of appetizers, side dishes, hot pots, noodle, and rice dishes, along with pages of Japanese and Chinese entrées.
The staff at Jong Kak is kind and helpful but otherwise reticent about issues of meal composition. The most difficult decision at our table was whether and how to balance barbecue items with other Korean specialties; ultimately we decided to devote our attention and appetites almost wholly to the grilling of flesh. Our server tipped us off to an option, no longer printed on the menu, that assembles five separately listed barbecue items into one meat-eating frenzy.
For $72.95, our foursome received what appeared to be full barbecue portions of chicken bulgogi; jae yook gui, marinated sliced pork in hot sauce; joo mool luk, marinated soft prime rib; short ribs; and kal bi, marinated prime rib. Along with all of this meat, this fee also brought us a shareable seafood hot pot, listed on the menu as hae mool suk uh chi gae, which combines monkfish, cuttlefish, crabmeat, and shrimp with tofu and vegetables.
Things happen quickly at Jong Kak. Panchan, those complimentary dishes filled with various Korean savories—kimchi, spinach, mince clams in tiny shells, pickled zucchini, sweet vinegar radish, creamy potato salad—materialize right away, along with dishes of sliced garlic, sliced hot peppers, soybean paste, and salad greens. Suddenly, a sensory overload of sweet, salty, and spicy flavors. The traditional salted anchovies were missed, though.
Very soon after, a server brings over an iron kettle-cauldron, inserts it into a well carved into the table, and places a grill on top of it. Item by item, from your platter of rawness, the server places shredded meat on the grill and tends to it with tongs. The meat sizzles, cooks, and when it’s done, diners grab at it with chopsticks, either placing it inside lettuce leaves, with soybean paste, garlic, and peppers, all of which is wrapped and eaten burrito style, or it’s simply flung into a bowl. And all of it is good, full-flavored, and spicy, with nuances of flavor announcing themselves as dinner progresses from meat to meat.
The hot pot, meanwhile, arrives, brimming with chunks of seafood in a sweat-inducing peppery fish broth. Individual bowls of rice are provided to absorb the heat. Ordering as we did prevented us from delving into some of Jong Kak’s fear-factor food—barbecue options such as beef tongue, intestine, and pork belly; hot pots filled with octopus, tripe, or codfish head. The amount of food we did order drew impressive glances from other diners, but it’s the kind of good and simple material, absent almost entirely of starch, that doesn’t make you feel soggy or bloated. Afterward, everyone felt great.