I’ve previously expressed my thoughts on fire and meat here, and now I would like to introduce you to a dish more than 2000 years in the making. Thought to have originated in the Gorguyeo era, this Korean dish has stood the test of time. A literal translation of bul = fire, and gogi = meat, bulgogi is most likely my favorite dish of all time. Champaign-Urbana is very fortunate to have this cuisine — in fact, we have many establishments. Unfortunately, I couldn’t cover them all, but the five below are a great start.
Bulgogi is thinly sliced and marinated meat, grilled over fire or stir-fried in a pan. It is mostly made from beef, but it can also be made with chicken, pork, and even squid. The marinade can vary slightly, but most commonly contains soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and garlic. Additional ingredients include pepper, ginger, scallions, and mushrooms, with onions and pureed pear as a tenderizer. The tenderizer is not always necessary given the thin slices of meat. The meat is traditionally served with rice and banchan.
Banchan are the assorted side dishes served alongside the main dishes. These side dishes often complement and enhance the meal but have a deep history all their own. The most common dish is kimchi, a fermented cabbage with a spicy chili sauce. There are several varieties of kimchi, my favorite being kkakdugi; instead of cabbage it has cubed radishes. Other dishes include potatoes, sea weed, eggs, vegetables, mung bean jelly, bean sprouts, and occasionally soup.
C-U is very fortunate to offer such a wide array of cuisine, and multiple restaurants to boot. If you have never had bulgogi, or Korean food for that matter you should give any one of these establishments a try. Even better, give them all a try and form your own opinion on which is best. If i had to choose one meal to eat the rest of my life, bulgogi would be in the top 5.
Good Fella is a Korean bistro located just off campus on south Neil Street. I went on a Sunday for a late lunch and the place was packed, usually a good sign. I ordered bulgogi ($14.99) and played sudoku while I waited. The order was up quickly, along with a variety of banchan. While they did not have kkakdugi, the assortment was nice. I must mention, the kimchi here was my favorite over all others. The bulgogi, however, was not. The flavor was great, but I think it had marinated too long, and the meat was over tenderized. I’m sure this isn’t the norm, so I will give then a second chance.
905 S Neil St #F
San Maru is a small restaurant located in southwest Champaign at the Crossing development, and was opened in March 2016 by two sisters looking to provide healthy Korean food using skills passed down through generations in their family. I am happy to report they do have kkakdugi, however in the last year the recipe or supplier has changed because it isn’t as good as it used to be. The bulgogi ($13.99) is usually one of my favorites in town, but lately it has been up and down. Hopefully they are just breaking in a new cook.
2504 Village Green Pl
Star BBQ offers traditional Korean fare, along with sushi, and karaoke. The bulgogi ($16.95) was generous in proportion and the flavor was pretty good. The assortment of banchan had some items that I don’t like personally, but the kimchi was tasty. Star also offers grills in the table where you can cook your own. This is a very popular social experience and is great with a group of friends.
1209 Savoy Plaza Ln
Masijta Grill in Urbana is probably my favorite spot for bulgogi. The bulgogi ($10/lunch, $13/dinner) is easily the most economical in town. While the portion size is large, there are added vegetables which reduces the total amount of meat compared to other establishments, for the lunch anyway. I would go for lunch and often walk out with enough leftovers for a second meal. The assorted banchan is always on point as well. Masijta offers the grill in table as well.
202 N Race St
B-Won is by appearances the most upscale restaurant in this group. The prices, however, are not saying the same thing. The bulgogi ($13) is a heaping supply of meat, plenty of banchan, rice, and soup. The fact that they had kkakdugi is a welcomed bonus. They also offer the in-table grills and various menu items made for two.
2006 S Neil St
Photos by Rob Schaffer