By Thomas C. Pavlik, Jr.
I’m a huge fan of all Asian food, but I’ve only had Korean barbecue a handful of times and always when I was out of state. It’s something that I look forward to whenever the opportunity presents itself, which is why I was happy to learn that this genre was coming to Springfield.
Let me explain Korean barbecue. Each table has its own gas-fed grill in the center of the table. Diners select one or more marinated meats. The meal is typically accompanied by any number of side dishes and dipping sauces. Rice is available on request. Staff will cook the meat or you can do it yourself, or adopt the hybrid approach.
We arrived right at 11:30 a.m. when Empire was opening its doors for the day. We couldn’t have received a nicer greeting and were quickly shown to our table where the host asked if we needed a brief rundown on what to expect, which was helpful. Drinks quickly followed.
Staff gave us a bit to peruse the menu before coming over to answer our questions. There’re only two options: all-you-can-eat ($25) or a la carte (one meat $16, two meats $22). Several of the proteins (galbi, empire steak and New York strip) are premium meats which come with a $2 surcharge, and which are also not included in the all-you-can-eat option.
We hemmed and hawed for a bit but ultimately decided to go with all-you-can-eat, which was a wise choice. The all-you-can-eat must be selected by all diners at the table and to-go boxes aren’t allowed. Our server mentioned that if a large amount of meat was leftover that there would probably be a surcharge, but that never became an issue for us.
Our dipping sauces were a mayo-based yum yum sauce, a garlic and onion sauce and a fermented soybean paste. Empire didn’t scrimp on the garlic, and the soybean paste gave a nice salty and nutty punch. But our group was particularly enamored of the yum yum sauce – enough that we had multiple refills.
Side dishes included potato salad (just like at a summer picnic), kimchi, daikon salad, cucumber kimchi and daikon wraps. Kimchi is made of salted and fermented vegetables, typically based around cabbage. Empire’s kimchi was spot-on and managed to simultaneously deliver sour, salty, savory and spicy flavors. The cucumber version was a more delicate dish but still had all the right notes. The daikon salad also had a nice kick to it as well as a bit of texture. All of these side dishes harmoniously cut through the fat and richness of the meat.
As for the daikon itself, our server suggested that we use it as a wrap for our meat – which, when topped with one of the sauces, became one of our favorites. Finally, although not on the menu, we asked for a hot sauce, which was quite thick (more like a paste) but wasn’t anywhere as hot as we were expecting. It, too, was good enough that we had to ask for refills.
For our protein selections we went with the beef bulgogi, shrimp, spicy pork belly, garlic pork, spicy chicken and the king galbi (short ribs which came with a $2 premium). Each of these were packed with flavor, thanks to the various marinades. The bulgogi had a nice savory, salty and sweet taste with hints of ginger, sesame oil and onion – it was right on point. One of my guests was a huge fan of the shrimp, enough so that we had to get a second order.
After our first few meat flights, we discovered that diners could order half-orders, which allowed us to sample more of the menu. At our server’s suggestion, we tried the spicy pork belly. It was a hit. But it was the marinated short ribs (king galbi) that was the winner by consensus. The meat, which gave off a smokey and sweet taste, was falling off the bones. Think of teriyaki, but better, by an order of magnitude.
Service was great. Our server did most of our cooking. And, once the meats were done, he also used scissors to process our selections into bite-sized pieces. It was like hitting the easy button.
Our lunch was definitely a success, and prompted one of my guests to ask why it had taken him so long to try the place out. Our collective answer was that it didn’t matter – we were all happy to have finally made it.
Address: 2100 West White Oaks Dr., Springfield
Hours: Sunday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Wheelchair Access: Yes
Credit Cards: Yes
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