Pulled, smoked and popped-up BBQ in Korea
On certain nights in Yongsan District, you can see hordes of expats congregating in dark alleys, wiping sauce from their chins. They often gorge themselves and line up for more to take home. The cause of the spectacle is Linus Kim, a purveyor of slow-cooked smoked pork from America’s Dixie Land.
Foreign foods in Seoul are typically faddish — we are currently past “peak burger,” and Mexican joints are now becoming as ubiquitous as convenience stores. True Southern cuisine, however, still remains elusive.
That’s where Kim comes in. This second-generation Korean-American was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and is cooking up craft barbecue with a level of skill and dedication that is unheard of on the peninsula. As many a shocked Southern expat will tell you, it can hold its own against anything below the Mason-Dixon line, a compliment not given casually. What makes Kim’s approach different from the average expat startup is that he operates on the concept of “pop-up” restaurants, taking over venues for one-time events.
“My friend, Chef Darren Vaughan, encouraged me,” Kim says. “I ended up negotiating a deal to sell my food and keep the sales while the host restaurant sold their beverages.”
He’s been successful enough that his cooking now pops up regularly at different venues in the city. Foodies eagerly await updates on his Facebook page of where the next location will be.
Kim’s love affair with swine began at age 7 at an elementary school fundraiser. “I was a super scrawny kid and a super picky eater,” he says. “I finished all the BBQ that day. Every morsel … and licked the sauce clean.”
Soon it was a weekend ritual to go to a well-known local BBQ shack on the way to weekend violin lessons, and the affinity has remained ever since. It didn’t take its current, preeminent role in his life until April 2011, when he came to Korea on a three-month business trip for a completely different enterprise. The plan was to “return to Los Angeles and start some kind of BBQ operation there.” While here, however, there was an opportunity to cook for an American folk musician’s concert in Sinchon. “At the time, smokers didn’t exist in Korea, so I had to build a very crude contraption.”
The event was a small hit and people were soon asking about an encore. At the suggestion of friend Jen Moeller, he started selling his trademark shoulder meat and sauces to restaurants in the Seoul area. “But after a few months of wholesaling, I would periodically sample the pork dishes that my clients served and sometimes it didn’t taste right,” he says. “Either the house chefs would do strange things like water down the sauces or I’d discover they would microwave or fry the meat instead of using the process I trained them to do. It was frustrating because my name was on the menu and the quality was just not up to par.”
Thus, Kim took back the reins and decided to focus on the pop-up method.
All was going well, but he still felt compelled to “honor BBQ like a sacred craft and take it to another level.” Particularly influential was the book “Peace, Love, and Barbecue” (2005) by BBQ guru Mike Mills and his daughter Amy. After months of online correspondence (that perhaps bordered on stalking), Kim studied and trained with the family through their business in Murphysboro, Illinois. This eventually turned into two nationwide pilgrimages devoted to honing this ancient craft. He ate and cooked his way throughout the Midwest and down into the Deep South. He worked at Stutt’s House of BBQ in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in exchange for an apprenticeship and a place to sleep, while cooking out of a 50-year-old all-wood pit. In Batesville, Arkansas, he completed an MBN (Memphis BBQ Network) judging class and became a U.S.-sanctioned competition judge. It was through this process that he eventually became a team member of Party-Q (led by Jim Butler) and competed with them at the prestigious Memphis in May (aka the Super Bowl of swine) and the Praise the Lard competitions.
For those not familiar with the nuances of slow-cooked meat, it should be pointed out that there are many regional varieties of BBQ in the States. While Texas is known for brisket and Memphis for dry ribs, in the South it is as much a noun as a cooking style. There might be differences over sauces and whether to chop or pull the meat, but the slow-cooked pork shoulder meat is universal. Kim predictably prefers hog from his homeland, cooked Alabama-style. It’s lightly flavored with a spicy, vinegary sauce and has thin-sliced dill pickles placed on top. He also only serves it 100 percent hand-pulled.
“I want a mix of stringy sinews, chewy bark and tender shards of muscle,” he says. “I don’t completely toss the pork in sauce to cover up flaws and I want the natural smoke to shine through.” He is also intent on calling out the posers in the industry: “A pulled pork sandwich should not resemble a barfy red Sloppy Joe.”
Kim is tight-lipped about his future plans, though he confirmed that there will be more pop-ups in the future with expanded menu options for his customers. He did make a statement at the end of our interview that should leave every gastrophile filled with optimism:
“BBQ is somewhat sacred to me. It’s part of my heritage as a Southern-raised man. One thing I’m committed to is not to be the best among my peers, but to always be better than I had performed before. That way I never rest on my laurels and get lazy, even if there were no other folks serving BBQ around. Striving to be better than I was the day before makes the pursuit limitless.”
Find Linus’ Bama Style Barbecue on Facebook.
Groove Korea website