Where is this magical land of bibimbap and bulgogi you ask? It's in Olney, of course. Where the hell is Olney you ask? It's on the other side of some extremely sketchy north Philadelphia neighborhoods. From center city you turn up 5th street, heading north, and drive about 30 minutes. Keep driving past little Puerto Rico, past the Cousin's supermarkets, past the vacant houses that Marlo Stanfield probably uses to dispose of bodies, and you come to Korea Town (K-Town, to the locals). Although the drive there can be an education in failed urban planning, the area around Kim's is not all that bad - another few minutes and you're technically out of city limits and into suburbia.
The restaurant is extremely well lit (fluorescent lights everywhere) and on a cold winter night it can get drafty. It can feel more like an non-insulated garage than a warm and cozy retreat. Each table has a built in well that they place the charcoal grill into which will help keep you warm. Over this well is a retractable vent hood that sucks up most of the smoke. As you're driving up 5th street, you can smell the beef grilling blocks away. Tables are meant for 6 people, but you can do more or less. On the Friday night we went we didn't have a reservation, but I've heard it can get pretty busy on warmer days.
The menu is a bit intimidating, with only vague English descriptions of what each item is. But don't be afraid to ask for help. Our server was super friendly and he made sure we got a good selection and didn't over order. Korean tradition is to serve a slew of little bowls called banchan consisting of marinated and pickled veggies, kimchi, etc. with the beef. These come out almost immediately as a sort of amuse bouche course. All the spicy kimchi ones were great, and we loved the green beans especially.
The marinated beef bulgogi comes out raw, in a heaping pile on a plate with a pair of tongs and a side of sliced jalapenos and raw garlic. One of these plates is probably enough beef for four people if you're ordering sides. We got two, cause we're gluttons ballers . You also get a huge pile of crisp lettuce which you use to make wraps for the cooked beef. Dip it into some of the garlicky ginger sauce on the side and they'll make your mouth happy like Twizzlers.
We also figured out about half way in that if you grill up the jalapeno & garlic in the beef juices, it goes great in the lettuce wrap. Very crafty people, the Koreans. The bulgogi has a wonderful flavor from the spicy marinade that is slathered all over it. It's sliced into very thin pieces that grill up in only a couple minutes. Whoever is working the grill has to keep flipping, moving and adding new chunks of meat. It looks like a huge pile to start, but it will go very fast.
The scallion pancake with jalapenos was really nice. Chopped into 2" hunks perfect for dipping into the soy/sesame sauce. It's light and crisp, with the bite of the scallion and a little heat from the peppers. Perfect appetizer.
I absolutely loved Kim's Bar-B-Q. It is a really out of the way place that very few people in the city venture to. You're not going to see any restaurant week menus or artisanal cupcakes here. This place is the opposite of trendy. They've been rocking the Korean beef since the early 80's. And according to the place mat and what I've read online, they are the only ones that still use real wood charcoal. All the rest have switched to gas grills at the table. Bonus - they have free, self service ice cream!
This was one of my favorite meals of the last few months. Such a profoundly different experience from the normal run of the mill restaurant. The food was absolutely great. We don't have kids, but I could imagine this would be a great place to take them. The sight, sounds and smells of the grill would keep them entertained the whole time. It kept four adults transfixed, chopsticks at the ready for that perfect piece of beef. Totally worth the drive through the badlands.
Kim's Korean Bar-B-Q
5955 North 5th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19120