My birthday was last week. It wasn’t a particularly important one, but birthdays are too easily overlooked as one gets older. If you don’t take the time to properly celebrate, you get old before you know it. (Sigh!) Of course, it was also a good excuse to organize a feast at a Korean restaurant in Flushing, Queens that I had been wanting to try for a while: Mapo BBQ. Mapo is known in foodie circles for its top-notch kalbi, short ribs marinated in a sweet, garlicky soy sauce and grilled on metal racks set into the table. At most Korean barbecue restaurants, the meat is cooked over a gas flame, but at Mapo, my research revealed, servers insert baskets of hot coals in the canisters embedded in each table. That distinction alone was enough to intrigue me. One thing that should be noted, however, is that Mapo isn’t exactly cheap. It easily exceeds the typical Mango Lassie price range, but hey, it was my birthday. Luckily, I have devoted friends. I invited nearly 30 of them to come. About 10 or 12 of them said they couldn’t make it, which proved key to fitting our party into the small restaurant. In the end, we were 17, including Empanada Boy; my cousins Ketchup, Leftover Girl, Bagel with Lox and Black Cherry Soda; my friends Curly Fries, Dan Dan Noodle, Fry Girl, Imperial Stout and his visiting buddy; my college friends Beefsteak and Varenyky; my work friends Dagashi and Pale Ale, along with Pale Ale’s friend, and last, but not least, my dear old friend Onion. I called the restaurant a couple of times to try to make a reservation in advance but was never sure, based on the broken English of her response, that the person on the phone understood me. Thankfully, my friend Saltman’s mother-in-law, who is Korean-American, kindly called the restaurant for me the day before to confirm. We were all set.
Google maps had the wrong address in its records, so half of us got there 20 to 30 minutes late. As it turned out, though, that was right on time for our numerous tables to clear out and be pushed together along one side of the restaurant. In all, we had three burners on our combined megatable—perfect for even meat distribution. I took the liberty of ordering bottles of the Korean beer Hite and kalbi for all (five orders per burner). Then the banchon started coming. Banchan, the collective name for the little dishes of pickles, kimchi, vegetables and salads, are perhaps the best thing about a Korean meal. And the quality of the offerings at Mapo was a step above the norm. There was fresh, crunchy kimchi made with whole bok choy, agar(!) cakes with roasted chilies, earthy sauteed mushrooms, cold glass noodles with vegetables, sauteed water spinach with sesame seeds, thin triangles of tofu, charred corn kernels and stone pots of fluffy steamed egg custard. As soon as we finished one plate, it was scooped up and replenished. These dishes help offset the $29-per-order price tag for the kalbi.
A team of servers soon brought baskets of charcoal and grill racks to our table, along with luscious pink slabs of heavily marbled deboned rib meat. They also brought bibs so large they looked like mini aprons. Most of us decided to take our chance, but true to form, EB and Ketchup proudly donned their bibs. As the meat began to cook, the servers flipped it and deftly cut it into squares with scissors. While we waited for the meat to cook, the head server came over to explain in stilted English that she would be bringing around complimentary seafood scallion pancakes, known as pa jun. Cut into triangles, these were crispy and less greasy than many versions I’ve had and were heavily laden with bright green scallions. I felt my first pang of fullness after eating my wedge of pancake, but I quickly dismissed it. We hadn’t even started on the meat!
The meat was ready, and it only took one bite for my hunger to return. This kalbi was truly in a league of its own. Tender and deeply flavorful, it was like the Kobe of Korean barbecue. We wrapped chunks of the meat in bright green lettuce leaves, stuffing them with spicy kimchi and adding ssam jang, the traditional spicy-sweet Korean barbecue dipping sauce. About midway through this meaty decadence, servers delivered bubbling cauldrons of soondubu jjigae, a spicy broth filled with quivering, silken tofu.
At one point, Curly Fries asked Dan Dan Noodle how to properly contain the meat in the lettuce leaf so that it didn’t fall out. Dan Dan explained that his method involved basically crumpling it all together, stuffing it into his mouth and hoping for the best. This is a pretty accurate description of my method, and it proved efficient for most of the rest of the table as well. We finished off the meat in relatively short order, with one end of the table snagging some extra meat from the other. Thinking we had all but completed our monumental task, we were soon surprised to find we were mistaken. Before our chopsticks had time to hit our plates, the army of servers descended again with three complimentary bowls of vegetable-packed bibimbap. I prefer bibimbap served in a hot stone dish so the bottom of the rice hardens like the sofrito in the center of a paella and the egg cooks as it’s mixed in. This bibimbap was served at room temperature, but it was tasty nonetheless. I downed a couple bowlfuls before reaching my limit.
Suddenly the lights dimmed and my friends started hushing each other. One of the servers carried a plate bearing a wedge of cheesecake with two candles in it. Happy birthday music piped in from somewhere started up. There was no singing on the recording, but it was one of the most hilarious renditions of the song I’ve heard. The music sped up and slowed down when you least expected it, and the shifting rhythms made it difficult for my friends to sing along. Imperial Stout described it well when he said he kept thinking it was the introduction and that the music was about to launch into the actual song. It never did, but the Korean waitstaff had no trouble joining in. They brought out the rest of the cheesecake, and Fry Girl did her best to dish it up to everyone using the butter knife they gave her. Not being a huge fan of cheesecake, I passed mine along to someone else. There was still bibimbap left in the serving bowls, and some of the more valiant eaters were not about to let it go to waste: “I’m still on savory,” Dan Dan Noodle said.
Indeed, I preferred to leave Mapo BBQ with the taste of roasted garlic, kimchi and that heavenly kalbi still foremost on my palate. It was a glorious birthday feast and an excellent way to welcome another year. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I would like to add that I am truly grateful that I have friends and relatives who would trek out to Flushing and shell out a not insignificant amount of cash to share this meat-filled moment with me.
149-24 41st Ave.
Flushing, NY 11355