Review: Ben Jia – Korean BBQ

I miss LA.  If you’ve ever been to LA you know where Koreatown is.  It’s pretty much the heart of Los Angeles covering around three square miles.  It’s where the perfect mix of Korean and American culture come together.  Some of my Korean-American friends say that K-town in LA is like a mini Seoul and the food is as authentic as you can get, even quite possibly better than Korea itself.

It seems like every major city has a Chinatown and/or Koreatown.  In Shanghai, for authentic Korean-anything, you go to Hongqiao/Gubei, where you can find Korean grocery stores, restaurants, bars, karaoke and boutiques.  Last weekend a group of friends and I went to check out the Korean BBQ joint, Ben Jia (Bonga).

When you arrive at Ben Jia during peak hours you should be prepared to wait.  They are always busy and they don’t take reservations.  They are however prepared for you by providing two designated waiting areas with chairs and stools for you to sit.  We arrived around 7 and were seated around 8 pm.

There are also two large windows where you can see the meat being prepared on one side while the vegetables being prepared on the other.

I love how homey Korean food is.  There is usually not anything too fancy about it but always tastes like a home-cooked meal from your Korean mother.  The place setting for a Korean meal typically consists of small plastic or stainless steel bowls, a pair of flat thin metal chopsticks almost always accompanied with a long spoon used for your soup and rice.

Traditionally every Korean meal is served with banchan which are shared small dishes that come at the beginning and are meant to be enjoyed along with the main course.  Banchan is one of my favorite parts of Korean cuisine.  At Ben Jia, the banchan that day included glazed peanuts, pickled spicy peppers, shredded mushroom, white cabbage kimchi, spicy shredded green onion, spicy shredded daikon and a salad with freshly ground sesame dressing and cold seaweed soup.  It was, however, missing some of my favorite banchan classics: glazed potatoes, spicy anchovies, spicy soybean sprouts, cubed radish kimchi, spicy fish cake, potato salad and stewed pickled seaweed.

Check out the huge display of assorted greens they give you for your lettuce wraps!  Really pretty!  I really liked this addition to the meal and keeps each bite interesting.  The sauces they serve are the traditional ssamjang (a mixture of fermented soybean paste, red chili pepper paste garlic and other seasonings), gireumjang (a simple mixture of sesame oil, salt and pepper) and also a third spicy kimchi flavored dipping sauce.

We ordered an assortment of meats, some marinated and some plain: galbi (beef short ribs), bulgogi (thinly sliced sirloin) and pork belly.

I love how this place uses a charcoal grill versus a gas grill and they use a special vent to suck the smoke up so you don’t leave smelling like BBQ.

We also tried some non-BBQ dishes including haemul pajeon, a savory seafood pancake with a mix of seafood (shrimp, squid, octopus, and clams) and scallions.  In my opinion a good haemul pajeon will have a balance between crispy edges and tender center.  This one was soft all around and was heavy on the batter.

A second dish, japchae, was made from sweet potato noodles and stir-fried with sesame oil, soy sauce, thinly sliced carrots, onion, spinach, and mushrooms–then topped with sesame seeds and shredded egg.  This one was really tasty and had a delicate balance of flavors.

I like Korean BBQ year round but I especially enjoy it during the fall or winter when the weather is cooler.  There’s nothing better than sitting around a communal hot grill, feasting on delicious meat, all-you-can eat banchan, and lettuce wraps.  I give Ben Jia thumbs up for meat quality, flavor and service.  I do wish they had a selection of Korean brand beers versus just Tsingdao and Budweiser, but that’s just me being picky.  This meal really hit the spot and reminded me that it had been way too long since I last had Korean food.

The Details:
Ben Jia | 1339 Wuzhong Lu, Shanghai | +86 021 5118-2777

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