The vibe was peppy, buzzy. The lighting was dark enough to feel cool, but bright enough to shine on the glistening meats sizzling on the grill. On a cold Monday night, there was a 30-minute wait for a table at Meokja Meokja.
This is Korean barbecue, minus K-pop on the TVs (usually American movies playing) and minus frozen meats. In fact, there’s a combination meal showing off, among other cuts ($80 for two, says the menu, which easily feeds double) a 16-ounce prime rib-eye. It’s a gorgeous hunk, bare of marinade, barely salted and flaunting its fatty marbling. It’s full-flavored, and especially fetching as it picks up bits of char by lounging on the grates.
Servers cook the meats at grills embedded in the table, using tongs to flip cuts while making small talk, divulging secrets. For instance, if you simply ask your server for a kimchi pancake, one will arrive, a small round bringing a welcome kick of heat against the savory meats. There’s also a giant seafood pancake, delicious and worth the $12 for its embrace of blackened scallions that hides just enough seafood to make it interesting, but not take away from the parade on the grill.
The cuts and preparations here are unlike most at Korean barbecue restaurants. Meokja Meokja is simplistic, light on marinades, showy on the quality of the meat, a gentle hand in prep, a few turns on the grill. “It’s not about something new or something that was gonna be hyped or the next viral thing,” says owner Christopher Kim, “but a true test of quality.”
It’s hard to remember this is a Korean restaurant, save for the abundance of sides (banchan) on the table: a salty sesame oil; juicy, spicy kimchi; shredded scallions; potato salad; green salad; sliced radish; allium-filled soy; soybean soup and an angry egg. Angry egg is actually a puffy egg custard over a slick of broth, warming, cozy and more like a Bob Ross-endorsed “happy little cloud” than anything to be upset about.
The meal unfolds slowly, servers changing the grill for the next round of meat when prompted. And what’s that cast iron of melted mozzarella and corn kernels, a better fit for a Mexican restaurant, doing here? It’s to cuddle around a slice of sweet-savory galbi (ribs), a contrasting layer of stretchy, gooey cheese that feels just right.
There’s no dessert, but an automated machine spits out a cup and fills it with a sweet, light coffee as a parting gift. Or, if you are waiting, something to keep you excited for the meal ahead. // Meokja Meokja: 9619 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax; A la carte: $4-$30; Combination platters: $45-$220; Open for dinner daily and lunch Sunday
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