New: Budnamujip, high-end Korean barbecue

Korean barbecue goes high end at Budnamujip.


Published:

Banchan at Budnamujip.
Marinated short ribs.

Photos: Steve Czerniak
 

 

Bossam kimchi.

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Galbi tang  •  Fried burdock
Bossam kimchi  •  Rib eye
Shortribs, seasoned or unseasoned

PRICE RANGE

Expect to spend $50 and up per person, if you’re coming for barbecue

TIP

Lunch menu items of noodle, rice and soups, including the galbi tang, are less than $15

“This is the Korean place to go now, among Koreans,” a friend says as we sit down at Budnamujip. It certainly seems that way; he’s the third Korean, each of varying degrees of separation from the motherland, to tell me that I must eat here.

They are all eager to show off authentic, high-end Korean barbecue. But what’s the big deal? Korean barbecue is nothing new in this town. We grill it tableside at hole-in-the-wall Waikiki spots and in a dozen restaurants that line the Keeaumoku/Koreaumoku neighborhood. We gorge at all-you-can-eat Korean barbecues, available 24 hours a day.

We love Korean barbecue—the conviviality; the (free! unlimited!) banchan, salty, sweet, sour, spicy; the smell of grilling meat; the sensory overload; the chaos; the soju bombs. Show me a person who doesn’t love Korean barbecue and I’ll show you a vegetarian or a no funner.

In short, we know Korean barbecue. What can Budnamujip possibly add to the scene?

There are four other locations of Budnamujip, all in Korea. The first one opened in Seoul in 1977, which, in that rapidly changing city, makes it an institution. A friend is as excited by the opening of Budnamujip as a steak lover would be by a Peter Luger steakhouse in Honolulu.

This is Honolulu’s first high-end, Korean-owned Korean barbecue place. Until Budnamujip, the higher end tended to be occupied by Japanese-run restaurants such as Yakiniku Hiroshi. (Our local, Japanese-dominated culture has so co-opted Korean barbecue that we refer to Korean barbecue by the Japanese term “yakiniku,” and even some Korean-owned places call themselves yakiniku restaurants.)

So what does a straight-from-Korea, high-end place serve? For one, it’s the only place in town that uses wood charcoal for its grills. Our waitress plunks down a bowl of hot coals in the tabletop pit and places a screen on top that looks more like a wire fence than a grill grate. She briefs us on the Budnamujip way: Quality is valued over quantity. We give just the right amount of meat, she says. All meats are prime, and priced accordingly. An order of meat averages $40 a serving, minimum two orders.

It may be some of the most expensive meat you’ll ever eat. But it will make your eyes open in wonder, then close with bliss. Everyone at the table stops chewing to tell each other how good this is.

The menu is all beef—skirt, ribeye, tongue. Those who appreciate the taste of unadulterated beef should order unseasoned galbi or the ridiculously tender ribeye. But Budnamujip is particularly famous for its yangnyeom galbi, beef short rib marinated in Asian pear juice, which sweetens and tenderizes the meat. It’s served with a sharp and mustard-y dip; it’s so delicious that I mistake it for soup and drink it all before the meat even arrives. Our server laughs and, without my asking, brings another bowl of it.


Among the other little dishes that we eat first and ask about later: pumpkin salad, burdock root coated in rice flour and fried, chili-doused raw crabs. The banchan change frequently. Though there is always kimchi, order the bossam kimchi, too, to experience the cabbage leaves wrapped around octopus, red dates and Asian pear, an uncommon package of sweet and spicy. Want to taste the premium beef raw? Then try yukhoe, the Korean version of steak tartare.

In Korea, people line up for Budnamujip’s galbi tang the way they line up for cronuts and new iPhones. At its Korean locations, Budnamujip makes only 100 orders a day and usually sells out within an hour of opening. Here, while running out doesn’t seem to be a problem, every table during lunch—most occupied by older Korean women—has a bowl. Bones pile up on the side like a dinosaur fossil excavation, the large, white ribs stripped bare. The broth is surprisingly clear but practically muscular with umami, from kelp, and the long simmer of beef and bones.

In some ways, Budnamujip resembles the previous restaurant in the space, the iconic Flamingo, which lit its neon sign on Kapiolani Boulevard for 49 years and closed in 2008. It was one of the last old-time restaurants that, in its later years, attracted a crowd that returned for the food they knew, that reminded them of a certain past. Though Budnamujip’s food couldn’t be farther from Flamingo’s, it also gives, for a certain demographic, a taste of home. “A nice, soft landing,” as a friend calls it, to ease her transition from Seoul to Honolulu. And for the rest of us, we’re lucky to sit at the same table.

Budnamujip, 871 Kapiolani Blvd., 593-8822

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