On Tuesday of last week, fellow staff member Erin and I visited Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ (located at 19th & Callowhill) for a chat with the general manager, Karen Tancrede. We wanted to get a sense of what the Gyu-Kaku experience is all about. Our visit started with an enthusiastic “Irasshaimase!” which was a nice throwback to the time that Erin and I both spent in Japan. The decor is also appropriately Japanese, with a modern flair mixed with traditional woodworking patterns. We were seated at a table and began perusing the menu while we waited.
Gyu-Kaku’s food is a mix of Japanese and Korean, and anybody who’s been to a Korean BBQ will feel at home here. This is Gyu-Kaku’s first restaurant in the Philadelphia area, and as Karen explained, they’ve had no trouble finding a place in Philadelphia’s vast restaurant landscape. Dining at Gyu-Kaku is an immersive experience. For me personally, as someone who has done Korean BBQ a couple of times, there’s something vaguely unapproachable about it. The feeling is like, ‘Gee, am I cooking this for long enough? Am I doing this right?’ At Gyu-Kaku, the cook-it-yourself attitude has not failed to impress the customers. “It’s all to your own liking,” Karen says. “We tell customers the cooking time when we bring them the meat, but I always say, if you’ve got five different meats, start with one of each and just try it and see what works for you. Some people like the pork belly really crispy, others, not so much.” One might think that the average American would find something a little off about going out to dinner and having to cook your own food, but its this atmosphere that really draws people to Gyu-Kaku. It has proved especially popular as a date place, because cooking the food yourself is actually quite fun, and it helps build the conversation and break the ice. Instead of spending the meal looking down at your phone or your plate, at Gyu-Kaku you will find it necessary to keep your head up for the majority of the meal, whether it be to pass around plates, keep track of the progress of your cooking meats, or negotiate terms with your table-mates on that final piece of Toro Beef. The presentation is even full of little tricks to get conversations going, something that can be truly lacking in this age of technology. Karen cites this customer interaction as the best part of the Japanese dining model. “A lot of the appetizers have 3 portions on a plate, or 5. It’s an odd number, and I wonder if Gyu-Kaku did that on purpose! It’s funny when people are on dates and they’re really polite in deciding who gets the last one, but if it’s a married couple and the kids are there, it’s every man for himself!”
This dynamic experience is only furthered by Gyu-Kaku’s proprietary table grill. While talking about families, Erin and I wondered if Americans might be put off by having a hot grill in the middle of the table, worrying about their children burning themselves. Karen then explained to us the down draft system the grills use. “These holes on the outside of the ring suck the smoke and flames down, so the outside of the grill stays cool enough to touch.” Of course, my inner child immediately prompted me to touch the outside of the grill, which truly was cool. “Obviously the inside of the grill is still very hot,” Karen continues, “but this system is very safe for families. It also decreases the chance of any splatter, and it keeps the whole restaurant from getting smoky, so you don’t end up with those sometimes unpleasant barbeque odors clinging to your clothes. It’s a very cool system they’ve invented, and it’s very unique to Gyu-Kaku.”
But enough about the atmosphere. Everyone’s really reading this to find out about the food, right?! The menu opens with a handful of value course options, recommended for first-timers who may feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of a la carte options Gyu-Kaku has to offer and prefer to have the restaurant choose for them (at a discount)! Next up is a page of tempting appetizers and rice dishes, all of which are prepared and cooked in the kitchen. We recommend the “Spicy Tuna Volcano” (also a favorite of Karen’s) and any of the bibimbaps (Korean rice dishes). Concluding the menu is the main attraction, a two-page spread of a la carte barbecue items customizable with different marinades. The focus here is various cuts of beef (including the ever-so-tender Kobe-style), but you will also find chicken, pork, seafood, and– vegetarians fear not– marinated tofu and plenty of vegetables to choose from to grill to your liking (and then dip into any of the three sauces found on every table– ponzu, regular sweet soy, and spicy). And, really, the cook-it-yourself thing was way easier than it might sound at first– it truly is to your own liking and it’s very difficult to produce a piece of meat that doesn’t look and taste awesome. The most difficult part of the meal was remembering to switch between the metal tongs and the chopsticks, but even that we managed (tongs = raw meat, chopsticks = everything else!)
From the attention to detail in creating the right environment for their restaurant, it should come as no surprise that all the food is just as high quality.One of many interesting facts we learned about the franchise that night: All of the kimchi (featured in the delicious and unique “Kim-chee Ramen”, which we sampled) for the entire east coast chain of Gyu-Kaku stores is made by a small family owned company in New York that makes it all by hand. “Thank goodness we haven’t grown too big for them yet!” Karen states. Another interesting aspect is the Kobe-style beef. The legendary marbled tenderness that is Kobe beef is certainly known in America for its quality, but Gyu-Kaku encountered a small problem when it was first expanding here. “We have to say its Kobe-‘style’ because its actually illegal to call something that isn’t actually from Kobe, Japan, ‘Kobe,'” Karen explains. “But what Gyu-Kaku did was they imported the cows from Kobe, the entire cow, alive, to Nebraska. And then over the years they bred a herd of Kobe-style cattle. So the heritage is authentic.” They even massage the cows and feed them beer in order to perfectly replicate that Kobe marbling!
So when is the best occasion to come to Gyu-Kaku? Really, it’s great for any occasion in which a lively, social atmosphere is your desire. As mentioned above it’s great for dates, great for dinner outings with friends and family, and especially great for large parties (there’s a semi-private dining room in the back with seating for up to 24, and the value courses are a perfect solution to avoid any hassle associated with ordering for a large amount of people). Recent grads looking for a good celebration dining option will be happy to know that now through June 30, grads eat for free up to $25. Finally, Gyu-Kaku has some great happy hour specials on both food and drink, which can be found on their website.
Still waiting for the perfect opportunity to try the Gyu-Kaku experience? This summer, you’ll be able to join us here at JASGP for some Japanese BBQ fun, as Gyu-Kaku will be participating in JASGP’s Peko Peko Dinner Club program. Announcements for specific Peko Peko dates expected in June, so stay tuned!
Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ, 1901 Callowhill St., Philadelphia, PA 19130