100 pounds of meat. A nationwide search for the perfect smoker. And six months of methodological trial and error. That is what it took Jesse Kim to merge his two favorite foods -- Texas-style barbecue and Korean marinated meat -- and create the basis of his restaurant, Bicycle and Gogi. Kim calls his Koreatown restaurant "the house of authentic oakwood barbeque." With menu items like pork belly Barbeque Tacos, some might call it fusion. Recently we made several visits to Bicycle and Gogi, cast all labels aside and let the food tell us exactly what this restaurant is trying to be.
The first clue as to what to expect from Bicycle and Gogi was the aroma that hit us as soon as we walked in. The smell of sweet and clean hardwood smoke lingers in the air. Looking towards the kitchen, there is the silhouette of the giant U.S. made smoker occasionally bellowing out wisps of white smoke. This when it hit us: what know as Korean barbecue should just be called Korean grilling. We could go on for quite a while detailing the difference of grilling and smoking, but let's keep it simple. Grill marks are applied. Smoke rings are earned.
Kim mans the smoker on most nights, keeping the temperature low and consistent. He does acknowledge that the meat served at Bicycle and Gogi isn't smoked for hours like in true Texas barbecue tradition. He declined to discuss his exact technique and brushed aside the suggestion that the shorter cooking time was for a quicker turn around. Instead he pointed out that his core clientele expects Korean barbecue -- regardless of cooking technique used -- to have the firmer texture of grilled meat. So here he yields to Korean tradition.
Bicycle and Gogi's barbecue can be ordered by platters of individual meats or by combination plates of pork, chicken and housemade sausages. The meats are marinated and, as another consequence of the smoke, develop a thin bark. The bark, a dark crust that develops when smoke interacts with the seasoning and protein, merges the flavors of smoke and meat to the point that, at first, we missed the flavor of the Korean soy sauce based marinade. Instead most of the cuts of meat, be they chicken leg, pork belly or spare rib, taste almost unadorned, except for the richness of the smoke. Just like good Texas-style barbecue should.
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Along with the barbecue, Bicycle and Gogi's menu has selections of fried items including ribbons of 'sweet' potato fries dusted with cinnamon and sugar and several Korean dishes listed under appetizers and side dishes -- like a stunningly red kimchi fried rice with a fried egg on top. On our most recent visit we ordered the Budae jjigae, listed in English as "Johnson Soup." Also known as Army stew because ingredients could be bought from the U.S. military bases throughout Korea, Bicycle and Gogi's rendition includes hot dogs, Spam, instant ramen noodles, zucchini and a slice of American cheese suspended in a thick gochujang (Korean chili paste) broth.
After the obligatory jokes were made, we dished up the soup and found the flavors combined surprisingly well. Springy noodles, spicy broth and the occasional pop of salty bits, it all reminded us of something oddly familiar. Later in our research, we read that this dish was once tied to a time that many Koreans wanted to move past, but now it has been embraced by a younger generation. It has a new reputation now, as a comfort food and can be found in restaurants throughout Korea. In the end, it was Johnson soup said everything that could be said about Bicycle and Gogi. Authentic? Fusion? How about, "Exactly why we love this town."