"The Best Korean Barbecue in New York" proclaims the website for Han Joo on St. Mark's in the East Village, the second branch of the Queens-based Korean restaurant. Bold claim for a city with pretty good Korean barbecue, and it may be the case, but not on a night when The New York Times' photographers are shooting dishes and dining room scenes for an upcoming piece or review. No, when The New York Times is there at least, expect poor service, an overhyped cooking method, and food that's no better than anything you can find in Koreatown. At least, that's the takeaway from a meal this past Saturday night.
Asked about the two men taking photographs on top of stools at the front of the restaurant, one server smiled and said proudly, "It's The New York Times!"
"Well good for them," you think. And you'd also think it would be good for you as a customer given all the servers at the front of the restaurant where you're sitting. Should be plenty of opportunities for their servers to make sure you're being taken care of, right? Not so much.
Want to get started with a drink? Ask about the soju. Are there soju cocktails? No. "OK, so what are the differences between the three sojus on the menu?" you ask. "There's not much difference unless you know the companies," you're told. OK then. Guess you could tell me about the companies. Or not.
So you get a soju recommendation and a joke about the waitress not having to card you (note to servers: not a well-received joke), order your food, and watch your waitress walk away. But something's wrong. She's distracted by those photographers and the server that they're taking photos of. So the waitress returns to retake your order, one consisting of four dishes. You've ordred two barbecue dishes — bulgogi and squid — yet the server tells you that you need to order at least two barbecue dishes to do barbecue at the table. "Um, but we did order two barbecue dishes," you note. "Oh, yeah, OK," notes the server.
You comfort yourself and your companion with the thought that the restaurant is just really distracted by a potential upcoming review in The New York Times. But should you have to suffer? Is The Times going to foot your bill? Recent buyouts and the prospect of layoffs at the newspaper lead you to believe that the answer to that quesiton is no. But you decide to move on.
You may have heard some effusive praise for Han Joo in Queens, and their crystal grill. It's something that sets Han Joo apart from most conventional Korean barbecue restaurants you've visited. But does cooking on crystal really make a difference? Or is it just a gimmick? It seems like the latter, but regardless, before you even get to tasting the food, you get treated to a view below the crystal grill plate — a soupy mess of grease and grilling liquid in the catchall under the table that you can just hope has only been there since just today. Sneaking suspicion? That's not the case.
But you move on. Keep an open mind, right?
You've ordered two appetizers, the dumpling sampler and a small order of the duk-bokis (rice cakes sautéed in chile pepper sauce with vegetables). No sign of those as the waitress sets up that crystal plate over the grease pit in your table. Then out comes the bulgogi and squid... your entrées. The waitress starts cooking your bulgogi, pushes it to the side of the crystal plate, looks at you strangely when you don't start eating it, and says, "Is everything OK?"
I don't know. Is it? There's no lettuce for wrapping that the tables on either side of you have. And how about those appetizers? Where are they?
"Oh, you see, the meat cooks very fast," explains the waitress. And what does cooking the barbecue have to do with the missing appetizers? Nothing.
The waitress reappears with a lettuce basket and halfway through you finishing it and the cooked beef, you finally see your appetizers. The rice cakes are fine, the sauce seems a bit ketchupy, but they're much improved by you taking matters in your own hands and crisping them up on the barbecue. And the dumplings are nice enough — fresh and delicate — but you have no idea which one is which because nobody takes two seconds to explain that, and there's not enough flavor differentiation to be able to determine it yourself. Hey! That one might be shrimp! That one may be kimchi! Who knows? Have some!
Speaking of which, you're almost finished with your bulgogi and practically done with the squid, noting to your dining companion that something seems to be missing and you can't seem to put your finger on it, when suddenly you realize that it's kimchi, the most elemental, basic, and iconic side at any Korean barbecue restaurant. No kimchi? The Asian customers on either side of you have kimchi. A request near meal's end for that missing kimchi finally nets you some, but what's the deal? Do white customers not deserve kimchi? Can they not handle it? And when they're served it, is it really as spicy as the real thing?
In the end, you'll leave happy enough. After all, none of the servers were rude, right? They're just really disorganized — like put-stuff-down-on-your-table-while-they-figure-out-what-to-put-on-someone-else's-table disorganized. The food is fine If you live downtown or just like being around NYU students, or want to be able to go to a place that has roots in Queens (because that means it's authentic), you may enjoy it, but it doesn't seem that there's really anything being served here that's better than anything you'll eat in Koreatown. Speaking of which, in all the places in K-Town, everyone asks you if you want more — you're asked if you want more banchan (the small plates they serve at the meal's start that make you feel like you're getting more than you ordered), but nobody asked if another round of meat was in order.
The food blog Serious Eats noted in their review of the original Han Joo in Flushing, A Clearly Unconventional Path to Pork Belly at Han Joo, that whether "it's culinary curiosity or outright hunger that compels you, both needs can be thoroughly satisfied at Han Joo." And that's just the point, you may be satisfied by the basics, but there's nothing really special about this second Han Joo branch.
Who knows whether it's going to be Pete Wells who turns out to have been the reason behind those photographers noted above? It very well may be The Times' junior reviewer Ligaya Mishan. Or it could be an overarching piece about eating on St. Mark's or Korean food in New York City in general (that would be fun). But I'll put my money on it being the review next week, after all, The New York Times' restaurant critic has an Asian restaurant food fetish and Han Joo is Asian. If it is the review, can we just say this? There are plenty of other restaurants in the city that you could argue needed reviewing more than this one. And if I'm wrong and it's not the review, good. And thank you, Pete Wells.
But if I'm right (and we'll have to wait to see how many stars it gets from The Times — one is generous), one thing is certain in the meantime, don't expect good service when the newspaper is there. The good news? A rereview is unlikely anytime soon.