Seorabol review: With Korean BBQ kissed by charcoal, Olney original still the standard

Follow the glowing coals. They flicker like an orange lantern inside a basket at the end of a long metal rod that glides through the dining room at the original Seorabol in Olney. A server deftly deposits their radiating heat into a vented hole at the center of our table. And once a hub-cab-looking grill plate rattles down into place, a colorful platter of marinated raw meats arrives and the unmistakable sizzle of true Korean BBQ rises into the night. Smell it, inhale its heady smoke of roasting meat tinged with sesame oil and funky spice — and savor this carnivore pleasure while you can.

Because although Korean food has never been more popular on mainstream menus in Center City and Philly’s suburbs, the old-school charcoal-fired grills of its ancestral Koreatown home in North Philly are becoming an endangered species. And the original Seorabol, the best of those survivors, is definitely still worth the trip.

Hand-cut galbi short ribs, expertly butterflied by two generations of Cho men so the meat unspools from their wide flat bones in long ribbons of richly marbled beef, quickly singe atop the flames. The lightly scored surface of meats already marinated in a complex blend of sweet and savory — sesame oil, sake, scallions, and pureed Asian pear — absorbs the charcoal smoke as a distinctive shade of extra nuanced flavor that caramelizes over the crackling heat. Each hot snip of intense meatiness is then dabbed with sweet ssamjang paste and rolled into the cool crunch of a lettuce bundle with warm rice, raw garlic chips, and slivered moons of hot chili.

Spicy variations of the all meats — including chicken and tender pork butt, as well as beef — amp the base marinade with a blend of both flaked and powdered chilies so red it looks like they were dipped in an active volcano. But there’s enough sweetness to balance the heat and leave the lips just pleasantly numb. The thin-sliced bulgogi with onions has a mellower beefy savor without being too sweet. The fat-ribboned slices of thick-cut pork belly are for purists.

“I always just want to eat the meat and rice straight up,” says chef Chris Cho, 33, who co-owns Seorabol with his father, Kye Cho, also a chef, and who is sole owner of Seorabol’s smaller new downtown branch. “But my parents just won’t leave it alone when I eat BBQ: ‘You have to eat your veggies!’ ”

Tradition is strong when it comes to Korean BBQ, an interactive food event that’s one of my favorite celebration meals. The genre locally, however, is at an ironic sort of good news-bad news crossroads. Second-generation entrepreneurs have finally brought a welcome wave of new Korean restaurants to Center City and beyond, infusing the region’s mainstream menus with spicy gochujang sauce, fermented kimchi funk, hot stone bibimbaps, and the fusion sensation of Korean fried chicken. Places like Bukchon, Dae Bak, Rice & Mix, and Southgate are good examples, as is Chris Cho’s Seorabol satellite.

But as more Korean restaurants spread across the landscape on the lift of generational prosperity to neighborhoods where fire marshals are less friendly to open flames in dining rooms, less-flavorful electric grills or worse (galbi precooked in the kitchen) have become the norm. As a result, I’ve come to value even more the remaining stalwarts of Olney’s onetime Koreatown — a neighborhood in rapid transformation as that community migrates to the suburbs. As a result, the charcoal-fired grill houses there can now be counted on one hand.

“I feel like it’s now about 20 percent of what it was 10 years ago,” laments Chris Cho.

One of my all-time favorites, Every Day Good House, sadly closed last year. Olney’s original Korean grill, Kim’s BBQ (founded in 1982), is still dropping cast-iron grates directly atop the coals in its quirky, drafty old diner car on North Fifth Street, despite a series of ownership changes. But Seorabol (pronounced “suh-ra-pull,” a reference to an ancient capitol), which Kye Cho opened in 2002, is now the neighborhood’s most reliable torch-bearer. And it has held up well as a beacon of consistent traditional cooking frequented by a largely Korean audience for whom the spice and fermented funk require no filter — compared to the subtle hedging on intensity I find in many new downtown kitchens that, to me, often seem to be missing an elusive edge.

That’s true even at Seorabol’s new Spruce Street branch, where Chris Cho is trying to “make a statement for the culture” with fiery hot pots like budae jjigae “Army stew.” But the lack of tabletop BBQ (yes, it’s cooked in the kitchen), along with overly soft rice in its bibimbap and the headache-inducing flicker of a fluorescent light wall, has often left me with the sensation I should have just driven 20 minutes north for the old original Seorabol experience where Cho’s dad and uncle, Guy Cho, run the kitchen with a knowing touch. “He’s a way better chef than I am,” Chris, who often plays the brash showman on promotional YouTube videos, says of his father. He’s still involved in the original Seorabol kitchen, as well. "He taught me everything I know.”

My crew was hardly alone on multiple visits when we pulled into the crowded parking lot at Second and West Grange Streets, saluted the security guard, and headed down the entrance ramp into a sprawling 200-seat dining room framed by shoji screen walls. Families gathered around smoking grills and various hot pots with seafood and beef innards bubbling in chili-fired orange broth. A table of 20-somethings beside us was deeply engrossed in a drinking game that involved flicking bottle caps and downing rounds of yogurt-soju shots. (I’m not yet quite a fan of Korea’s popular distilled spirit, but found the white grape flavor drinkable.)

A flurry of complimentary little banchan plates land on the table to jump-start our appetites, with a punchy kimchi to pair sweet soy-pickled daikon radishes, chewy head-on krill with spicy fish cakes, snappy bean sprouts, fresh broccoli and plump cross-sections of braised mackerel, which require some skilled nibbling off the bone.

While the BBQ is the primary draw, there is a full roster of classic dishes here to bolster the meal. Seorabol makes some of the best pajeon pancakes I’ve had, their crispy rounds of potato starch, flour and scallion-laced eggs perfectly crisped on the exterior without being doughy at the center. And the stuffings exuded bold personalities, like the spicy orange version with kimchi and shredded pork, or the more popular haemul pajeon studded with tender baby octopus, peppers and squid.

The seafood casseroles were among my least favorite items. The cod and shellfish hot pot was full of grit. The tempura is also not a forte, unless you enjoy shrimp and veggies lost inside massive clumps of thick batter. The overly soft rice for sushi — which is wildly popular in Korea — was a good excuse to stick with the sashimi the Chos favor anyway, with boats of raw fish riding out to big tables laden with delicate slices of fluke, salmon and red snapper with Korean-flavored spicy vinegar dip.

There’s a more exciting world of noodle dishes here to explore, from the springy glass noodles of well-seasoned japchae, to the house-rolled wheat noodles of jjang myun topped with a hearty black bean sauce enriched with potato cubes and bits of short rib trim. The ice cold buckwheat noodles doused in a spicy vinegary beef broth — bibim nang-myun — could become my go-to summer dish if only I could figure out how to snap those crazy-elastic noodles with my teeth instead of cheating with scissors (“True nang-myun eaters don’t use scissors,” chuckled Chris.)

The clear broth soup of galbi tang, however, is easy eating comfort – with hunks of bone-in short rib bobbing alongside sweet daikon radish and floating veils of whipped egg. The crispy mandu dumplings have a uniquely creamy texture to their centers I liked thanks to the tofu blended along with the chives, beef and onions.

The massive repertoire of dishes, including multiple variations on bibimbap, hot pots, soondubu soft tofu stews and chewy duk bokki rice cakes in spicy gochujang onion gravy, is crucial to Seorabol’s status as an all-purpose destination. But there are other places that meet that role just as well, like Dubu, my current Korean favorite in Elkins Park.

What continues to most distinguish Seorabol as an essential cornerstone remains its mastery of hand-trimmed meats kissed by the coals. And the crowds keep coming, based on the 600 pounds of short ribs alone each week that sizzle across its grills, and whose vapors inevitably leave the well-worn tile floors vaguely sticky when you walk across them at the end of a particularly bustling evening.

“We’re still here and still serving the community,” says Chris of their continuing commitment to Olney, even though Seorabol has made its own Center City splash. “And we’ll be here until the community no longer wants to come. That’s how we’ll go out.”

As long as its grill baskets glow hot with the fires of real charcoal, Seorabol will remain a beacon of old neighborhood traditions worth seeking out.