The past few years have been good for Korean food. Signs of the country's culinary conquest of America are everywhere these days. Kimchi is the new coleslaw, Korean buffets have replaced the Japanese hibachi for birthday-party throwdowns, Korean BBQ is a menu option at Subway, and thanks to Roy Choi's L.A.-based Korean-street-food truck, bulgogi is now an official part of the foodie lexicon, right up there with cronut and omakase.
Luckily, this is one trend South Florida is on par with, mainly because Korean dishes — unlike Chinese, Japanese, or Thai — remain largely untouched by American influence. The dish names are still written in Korean, words foreign to both our tongues and our palates. Some are even harder to swallow, literally; yes, fresh-cut live octopus tentacles will most certainly stick to your throat if you don't chew them sufficiently.
"Part of the allure is the atmosphere we provide. It's not just about the food but also the experience."
But not all the dishes are so challenging. One of the best ways to approach Korean cuisine is with barbecue, where family and friends take turns cooking their own banchan — small bowls of meat, seafood, and vegetables — over a gas-heated grill. Broward County boasts several such establishments in the westernmost section of Lauderhill. These types of restaurants are often old-fashioned and family-run and for years enjoyed a steady Korean patronage over Americans.
Now, the latest trend in Korean dining is helping to change all that — a move toward more casual dining the likes of Izziban Sushi & BBQ, a spunky Orlando import located west on Oakland Park Boulevard that delivers buffet-style fare and all-you-can-eat barbecue in one setting.
General Manager Miguel Choi tells us the name is a twist on the Japanese word "ichiban" that translates to "number one." The name has proved to be good luck for the Izziban creators, a husband-and-wife team of Korean chefs who moved to Florida from Seoul, Korea's capital city. In 2007, the couple opened their first restaurant in south Orlando, a barbecue restaurant specializing in unlimited yakiniku as well as a full menu of Korean and Japanese cuisine.
Six months ago, they opened a second outpost in east Orlando, a two-story, 13,000-square-foot establishment more than three times the size of the original, a space meant to absorb a surplus of patrons who would endure the two-hour wait on busy nights at the south location, says Choi.
"Part of the allure is the atmosphere we provide," he says. "When you dine out, you want to be transported to another place. It's not just about the food but also the experience. Izziban really gives you the whole package. We share a little bit of our culture with you, everything from the food to the music."
In July, Izziban expanded its reach to South Florida, opening its third location in Lauderhill. From the outside, it doesn't look like much — a mysterious, standalone white stucco building with black-tinted windows. Inside, the vibe changes completely, a large dining room lit with pulsing neon lights, sporting a back-lit mirrored bar, and TVs synced to stream the latest K-pop hits. It's like a sugar-sweetened, Korean-style Hard Rock Cafe with a menu that rivals the Cheesecake Factory in size and selection.
Here, the world is your oyster, the offerings so broad in scope and experience that it can take up to 30 minutes just to peruse all the options. Of course, the all-you-can-eat barbecue route is perhaps its best deal, each table equipped with a shiny new electric grill imported from Korea where you can grill a week's worth of food — the entire barbecue menu — available for $29.99 per person. Izziban's banchan selection is straightforward, with two distinct categories: Korean yakiniku (food cooked over a grill) or nabemono (food cooked in a pot of boiling liquid). Meat portions come in generous, hand-cut slabs rather than paper-thin, frozen wisps, and upgrades for endless sushi rolls make the entire experience a truly indulgent affair.
Whoever is deemed the best chef at the table will arrange thin-cut pieces of meat and seafood over the hot metal grill, removing them only when the fat begins to crisp, or adjusting slabs of marbled prime rib eye so they sear perfectly, retaining that coveted blush of raw-pink doneness. Try the restaurant's specialty: galbi, tender slices of short rib kicked up a notch with the owners' own creation, a strawberry-sweetened, soy-based sauce. And don't pass up the samgyeopsal — thick-sliced, fatty portions of pork belly marinated overnight in fragrant white wine.
Choi suggests going full ssam — the Korean word for "wrapped" — using leafy vegetables to hold a dollop of bean paste, a scoop of rice, a liberal dousing of the house spicy vinegar and kimchi sauce, some grilled garlic, and a piece of meat or seafood. It's the Korean equivalent of a two-bite taco.
If cooking your own dinner isn't especially appealing, you can order food prepared in the kitchen from a five-page plastic menu that lists dozens of appetizers, soups, salads, and entrées.
You can also go for the endless sushi buffet, available at dinner from 5 to 10 p.m., or order dishes à la carte. The waiter will take your drink order first, a recommendation of house-infused soju, perhaps, or one of more than a dozen bottles of sake. Sud-lovers will be happy to hear there's plenty of craft beer — even a few local ones — on tap, a list of colorful cocktails, and wine.
No matter what route you choose, be sure to order a bowl of spicy tofu soup, a specialty dish made only at the Lauderhill Izziban, available as a $3.99 add-on when you order the all-you-can-eat lunch or dinner. It arrives in a deep metal bowl, a sweet-and-spicy broth still roiling from a violent boil, steam rising from a miso-rich broth dotted with cabbage melted down to translucent wisps, and rice noodles that have cooked to puddingy density. The final touch: a single egg. It's not ready to eat until it begins to cook, translucent edges turning opaque, then white, and the yolk molding into over-easy territory.
If you're a seafood lover, there's also jjamppong, a spicy Chinese-Korean seafood noodle soup you can order from the main menu, served in the same metal bowl. There is a first helping. Then a second. And finally a third, what seems like a never-ending puddle of vermillion-hued chili sauce boiled down to a thick, glossy richness, topped with a single whole prawn.
Just when you think you can't manage another bite, your server will unceremoniously dole out the dessert menu, one side featuring a series of Americanized options rolled into neat, cylindrical portions, the other delivering more traditional Asian offerings. If you aren't a sugar fiend, the patbingsu doesn't disappoint, a tower of shaved ice adorned with mochi ice cream, flavors like mango and green tea sealed into gelatinous globs of tapioca. They'll have to roll you out when you're done, but it will be worth it.
"After seeing the success of their other restaurants, we felt South Florida needed a taste of what Izziban is all about," says Choi. "The owners are having fun. It's still traditional Korean food, yes, but if you want wine with your barbecue, go for it. If you want a cocktail or craft beer, do it. Who says you can't?"
Izziban Sushi & BBQ
7225 W. Oakland Park Blvd., Lauderhill. Hours are 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 954-368-6767, or visit izzibansushi.com.