About a dozen years ago, on North University Drive in Lauderhill, Susan Kim opened Gabose, a Korean barbecue restaurant with charcoal pits at the center of some tables, so diners could custom-cook their own meals. Since then, several other Korean businesses have followed her, opening on the same stretch of road. In a plaza just across the street are another Korean barbecue joint called Manna and the Kim & Lee Oriental Mart, a Korean grocer with a borderline offensive name. Nearby on West Oakland Park Boulevard are a Korean homestyle restaurant called Minji's Cafe and another barbecue restaurant, Da Mee Rak. Another restaurant, Myung Ga Tofu, sits a few miles away on Weston Boulevard.
Most recently, Republic of Korea (ROK) opened in January in the same plaza as Manna and Oriental Mart. If you sit at a table facing ROK's entrance, you can see Gabose through the windows. This concentration of Korean establishments might leave anthropologists scratching their heads, as there's no distinctly Korean neighborhood nearby.
In fact, there are no Koreans actually living in Lauderhill, Kim says. She lives about seven miles away in Sunrise. Young Kho, owner of Manna, agreed that most Koreans live in Sunrise but notes that her clientele, Koreans and non-Koreans alike, comes from as far away as West Palm Beach, Miami, and even the Keys. The 2010 U.S. Census put the number of Korean-Americans in the state at 26,205, and the latest American Community Survey counted just shy of 3,000 Koreans living in Broward County.
ROK chef and owner Michael Kwon says he sees Lauderhill as a middle ground for South Florida's far-flung Korean community and hopes that it could be come a Little Seoul.
Kwon was born in South Florida to immigrant parents. His father had escaped from North Korea before moving to Seoul, and then halfway across the world to Florida. Kwon attended culinary school at the Art Institute in Fort Lauderdale before cooking in kitchens at the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, D.C.; the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne; and Victoria & Albert's in the Grand Floridian Hotel in Disney World. About a year ago, he returned to South Florida, ready to strike out on his own with a Korean barbecue service and small plates the way he likes to eat them: heavy on the meat.
Of the Korean barbecue joints, Gabose and Da Mee Rak are the only two where the meat is delivered raw and diners have traditional charcoal pits at the center. Kwon says he chose not to have in-table grills so he could spare the poor soul who often gets stuck cooking and not eating. It's also helpful for groups planning to go out after a meal.
"The problem is we would go out to eat, go to the next place, and everybody would know where we [had been]," Kwon says. "We give you the option of having your meal and not smelling like smoke and charcoal afterward." At ROK, as at Manna and Myung Ga, the meats are grilled in the kitchen and emerge on sizzling fajita platters meant to keep them hot throughout the meal.
An order of Korean barbecue ($22 per person) at ROK brought an almost unmanageable amount of food, with each protein arriving on a different plate. One plate had thin-sliced and grilled pork belly; another plate was piled with shredded beef, marinated in a mixture known as bulgogi — soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and pepper. There was a plate of shredded spicy pork as orange as buffalo sauce and another plate with grilled, skin-on chicken thighs. An extra $5 gets you a platter of grilled short ribs, marinated in galbi, a combination of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, and sugar that was the highlight of the meal.
A Korean dining experience is as much about the banchan as it is about the entrée. Servers typically drop off an array of small dishes that can function as appetizers, side dishes, or condiments. (I would hate to be the dishwasher here.) These did not disappoint. Mook, translucent white gelatinous squares of mung bean protein marinated in sesame soy sauce, made for a good palate cleanser between meats. Sliced fish cakes, similar in taste to the artificial crab one might find in a Publix California roll, came sautéed with soy sauce, with a bouncy texture and a pronounced fishiness.
House-made kimchee brought together the proper amounts of spice and umami (savory taste), thanks to the funk of the fermented cabbage. Kimchee is an indispensable Korean condiment, but funny enough, staff at ROK were generous with the meat but stingy with the kimchee. Portions were disappointingly small, and we had to ask for several refills. Buzzers on each table, confusing at first, emitted a fuzzy chime sound when pressed. They quickly became a welcome delight, as we called servers, who never seemed bothered, back time and again for additional helpings of kimchee and ssamjang, a fermented red chili paste. Other highlights of the banchan included steamed black beans marinated in a sweet soy-mirin glaze, a cold vegetable omelet, and a bean-sprout salad in a sesame oil dressing. A miso stew, which Kwon says come with each order of barbecue to round out the meal, went untouched. The bubbling, cast-iron cauldron of soup lacked the salty, nutty miso flavor, and the pork had more gristle than meat.
ROK's interior did not match its barbecue. Although there were many delights among the dishes, the only exciting thing about the décor was the many hues of beige on the floor tiles, the walls, and the exposed brick wrapped around each of the half-moon windows. Beige-backed banquettes had brown cushions wrapped in plastic. Tacky red strings of Christmas lights seemed a cheap attempt to spruce up the hole-in-the-wall feel. A cobalt-blue Paramax karaoke machine looked like it had seen better days.
The worst, and most easily fixable, part was the interior temperature. It seemed Kwon was trying to save a buck by keeping the air a few degrees above comfortable. The heat only got worse after we ate our way through a few platters of sizzling meat.
On a second visit, we sampled the Korean tapas menu. I advise you to stick with the barbecue. Thai beef salad ($9) came with a generous helping of sweet, thin-sliced beef over pale leaves of romaine lettuce. Cilantro sprigs brightened things up, but there was not enough to mask the watery greens. Shrimp and pork summer rolls ($7) were the highlight of the tapas we tried. A pair came sliced in half, filled with chilled shrimp and pork wrapped in thin, fresh rice-paper rolls with vermicelli noodles accompanied by a rich peanut dip.
Two massive panko-coated pieces of pork loin arrived looking golden brown, as though they'd been cooked correctly for katsu ($10), the Japanese name for meat that's been breaded and fried. But when we bit in, we found them so tough, we had to send them back. They were also devoid of the promised shiso, an Asian relative of basil. Hopefully our order was an anomaly.
We thought the tapas paled in comparison to the barbecue, but Kwon says he likes those small plates most. "It's more my heart than the barbecue," he says. "The fusion is where I get to play and do the stuff that I want to."
None of the Korean business owners in Lauderhill seem concerned about cannibalizing customers from one another, even though we were one of only two tables at ROK on both visits. Young Kho, of Manna, says she opened about the same time as ROK and wasn't focused on any of the competing businesses. All of the restaurant owners insist that business is good and that there's plenty to go around.
"For me to see a Korean community would be amazing," Kwon says. "Everybody if they want to could come here, eat something Korean, see something traditional. We could have another coffee shop, another karaoke room."