A refined new invention on Korean barbecue
Perfection is an ideal that’s rarely aimed for in BBQ venues – it’s usually all about the sizzle, the smoke, and the thrill of the grill. With the recent reincarnation of Kang Nam Ga on 6B Le Quy Don, that paradigm has now changed. Under new owner James Kang, this second-tier Korean venue has risen sharply in the ranks, and it’s now a serious contender for the crown within its category. Kang, who operates a number of successful businesses in Ho Chi Minh City, has reinvented this once-tired restaurant with the intention of introducing a more refined style of Korean BBQ to local diners – fitting it out with high-tech smokeless racks and commissioning the services of Lotte World Hotel’s Head Chef Im Woon Ky to retrain all staff and bring in some classy, cutting-edge cooking techniques.
Our table is attended by 21-year-old student Yen My, although not exclusively – under the new management, every table is looked after by a team of three wait staff, each of whom have been through Im’s training. My enthuses with the energy of a convert – since reopening last month, she’s seen some big infrastructural changes at the restaurant (she mentions the kids’ playground up front, which is actually one of the better ones I’ve seen), and she says that she appreciates the clarity of the new, more disciplined regime. It shows.
My, other staff tell me, is Im’s star pupil. It’s obvious that he’s succeeded in passing on his culinary skills – she wields the tongs like a seasoned professional. It’s not showmanship, it’s methodical: every aspect of the cooking is under tight control, including the exact sequence of temperatures used to cook each morsel – which is why customers are deftly waited upon rather than left to clumsily overcook their choice, imported American beef.
In Korean BBQ, beef is treated with a certain reverence, and at Kang Nam Ga, it’s almost always served first. We ordered the ambitious assorted meat grill set (modum gui) at VND890,000, which is a selection of four beef cuts, each of which, according to the young team of experts at our disposal, are cooked in different ways. The grill is spotless – there’s no gas or coal smoking out, it’s all electrical – and a water cache beneath the surface channels all the fumes down through a chute, so the air throughout the restaurant remains clean. The sirloin cuts, My explains, cook fast – so turning is kept to a minimum. The grill is swabbed first not with oil, but with a chunk of fat from the same type of meat that’s about to be cooked. It’s cleaned easily with a dousing of soju.
You can roll your beef up in fresh lettuce leaves with chives, pickle, and garlic, dipped in a Korean BBQ sauce – but if you’re not in so much of an herbal mood, you can always dunk the meat by itself in the rich, salty sesame sauce provided. It serves to remove any persistent odors in the meat, and it’s divine.
Chiseled and Cut
We follow the beef with a pork dish for a little contrast, ordering the grilled pork belly (samgyeopsal gui) at VND160,000. Pork, unlike beef, needs to be gradually cooked and turned, and the resulting portions are fully- done without any chewiness. The fat is a tad crispy – just like a Christmas roast.
The meat dishes are served with a number of vegetable condiments, each chiseled to perfection. One of Im’s trademarks is his attention to detail and symmetrical cuts, even with the carrot and radish sticks. Kim chi is on the table, but in deference to the foreign palate, this is lightly fried to bring out the flavor of the fresh cabbage leaves – it’s not as acerbic as raw kim chi, and the heat descends gradually on the tongue rather than bites back at you on contact.
That being said, I’m a particular fan of kim chi, and so my preference was to finish off the meal with a fine kim chi stew (kimchi jjigae) at VND120,000. Properly matured kim chi makes for the best stew, and this variety is made with genuine Korean sauces and top-quality local cabbage from Dalat, set off with tofu and pork. The dish has a pleasant, insistent burn that rivals the best of Thai soups.
Korean food should be accompanied by Korean spirits, but watch out – the stuff has a habit of catching up with you before you’ve realized how much you’ve had to drink. Kang Nam Ga has a good selection available, from a small bottle of Hongjo at VND45,000; a variety of sojus (around VND120,000) and fruity macgoli (VND160,000); and a particularly fine nigori sake at VND400,000.
The best is yet to come with Kang Nam Ga – Chef Im Woon Ky’s back at Lotte World now, but he’s due to return to set up the venue’s next signature dish – the infamous and eminently popular ginseng chicken soup (samyetang), which will be prepared with Korean ginseng and Dalat chickens and sell at VND215,000 per bowl. Samyetang is served in a claypot with the broth bubbling at boiling temperature, and it’s one of the most memorable dishes of the Korean cuisine for those whose experience extends only to meals with kim chi. The ginseng wine has already arrived – massive jars of 16-year-old ginseng sit steeped in 15 percent proof alcohol, and complimentary shots will be served with the soup. Try it when it gets here – Kang Nam Ga may well be the Korean go-to venue long before then.
Images by Ngoc Tran