I and my clan—Charles, his wife Hyunjin, my buddy Tom, and our mutual friend (my ex-boss at KMA) Patrick—finally visited my friend Joe's pub last night. I had made 7:30PM reservations, but everyone had gotten there earlier. Tom and Patrick had been at the place since 5:30PM, probably to earn bragging rights or squatters' rights or something. They're bastards for getting an early start on what was supposed to be a group experience, but this behavior wasn't too surprising because Tom's been traitorous before (he recently went to the new Seorae without me). Initially, I didn't believe Tom when he texted that he'd been at the pub since 5:30; I skeptically texted back, "White man lies and takes our land."
So I arrived last, snapping a quick pic of the pub's exterior before wandering in through the huge, open sliding door (the evening was pleasantly cool, but not cold) and being greeted like fat Norm in an episode of "Cheers." I sat down across from Charles and Hyunjin, with Patrick on my right and Tom tucked comfortably into his corner.
Tom and Patrick had long ago ordered an appetizer and some drinks to keep them busy while they waited for the rest of us; Charles and Hyunjin had ordered a boat of Chickasaw Fries, which arrived not long after I'd sat down. The fries were seasoned with the pub's signature barbecue rub, then topped with pulled pork, shredded cheese, onions, sour cream, and jalapeños—about as comfort-foody as you can get. I ate only three or four bites of the appetizer, but I could have snacked on nothing but that all day long. The spice rub made all the difference, putting the appetizer well above the Vatos Urban Tacos kimchi carnitas fries I'd had when I'd met Joe a while back, and right on par with the positively miraculous cheesesteak waffle-cut fries that are served at Rye Post in Itaewon.
Here's the aforementioned exterior shot. It was nighttime, so my camera didn't know how to handle the combination of ambient darkness and blaring light from Joe's sign. Apologies, as always, for the blurring.
Here are the Chickasaw Fries:
The server, who wasn't Korean, and who obviously felt more comfortable speaking in his unaccented American English than in Korean (Hyunjin tortured him by speaking to him in nothing but Korean the entire evening), took our orders. As I'd threatened to do, I got the large-size Taste of Alabama Platter, which the server warned was made for three. Several folks at the table had the same thought I did and blurted out, "So that's enough for one Kevin." I knew that, if I didn't finish the mound of food that was coming, I'd doggie-bag it and slaughter the rest once I was home.
With my arrival, I had interrupted conversations in progress, so I took a few pictures. Somehow, I failed to snap pics of Hyunjin, but if you want to see her lovely face, just go visit Liminality and poke around Charles's "imagery" archives. She's tucked in there somewhere.
Charles and Tom share a moment. Charles flashes his gang sign:
In the following shot, I "go meta" and get a pic of Patrick taking a picture of his food. Postmodernist "philosopher" Baudrillard (cough, spit) was mentioned at this point, because we were a group of nerds (all except Tom, who has a fine wit, but who also has no proper schooling and thus doesn't get tweedy academic humor). Patrick and Tom had also ordered the large-size Taste of Alabama Platter—the same as what I'd ordered, except that they had added an extra side of mac-and-cheese, which Tom is cradling for Patrick's camera.
Happily, the following two images speak for themselves. The first is of the front side of Joe's menu; the back side didn't interest me all that much because it was devoted to drinks, most of which I'd never have because I don't drink alcohol. The second picture is of my meal, which arrived, along with Charles and Hyunjin's meal, several minutes after Tom and Patrick's platter came to the table.
Mon repas glorieux:
I hadn't eaten any solid food since Friday evening, so I was as ravenous as a starving dragon. That said, when my meal landed in front of me with an audible thump, everyone looked at my pile of food, and some at the table openly wondered whether I'd be able to finish the whole thing. Hyunjin had said, back when I'd ordered, "There's a whole chicken with your meal!" There did indeed seem to be an entire spatchcocked chicken lying there before me: wings, breasts, thighs, and drumsticks, smoked and fried to order.
On Joe's menu, the Taste of Alabama Platter is described thus:
Large (200 g pulled pork, whole smoked fried chicken, 3 sides)
My three sides were mac-and-cheese, whiskey beans, and cole slaw. The beans were solid, with some sweetness to them (we all agreed that the whiskey didn't come out that strongly); the slaw had a nice, balanced tanginess to it (this wasn't a cream-based slaw); and the mac-and-cheese was expertly cooked and loosely packed without being goopy. I ate everything. My platter also came with three buns (the same as Linus, but not toasted... not that I'm complaining, Joe!), which I and the rest of the table used to make little pulled-pork sliders.
The pulled pork was the best I'd had of the three restaurants I've visited. I'm not sure how obvious this is in the photo I took, but the pork had more bark to it, and it was richer and more succulent. Joe's sauces were also much better than those I'd had at either Manimal or Linus' BBQ. His Tuscaloosa Sauce has a smoky, cumin-y flavor to it that's a few shades away from being a taco sauce; his Cola Sauce, which some reviewers have deemed too sweet, wasn't too sweet at all for me—certainly not the level of sweetness found in, say, Sweet Baby Ray's. The Alabama White Sauce, which is a close cousin of my very own cole-slaw sauce, went well with the pork and even better with the chicken.
Ah... the chicken. We all agreed that the chicken was the star of the show, despite how good everything else on the platter was. Without exaggeration, I can say that I have never had chicken like this in my life. The grilled-and-smoked chicken at Manimal ended up being the surprise hit when I went there with John McCrarey, but Joe's chicken, compared to Manimal's, is like Mike Tyson—in his prime—fighting my old Korean grandmother. There simply is no comparison.
I've been sitting here, staring at my monitor, trying to think of ways to put the experience of Joe's chicken into words. First, we'll note that it's called "smoked fried chicken" on the menu, so the chicken obviously goes through something approaching a Chinese twice-cooked process. What I wanted to know was how in the hell Joe managed to get both the savoriness and the smokiness to penetrate so deeply into the chicken's flesh: a chicken breast is a rather thick, hefty muscle group, after all, and it's not easy to inject flavor deep into the muscle without literally injecting flavor into it with a syringe (the pork does get injections). Joe's website provided the answer to half of that mystery: "Our chicken at McPherson’s is brined overnight to make it super juicy." Aha—brining! And for a day, no less!* Amazing. That explained much. The web page also says that the chicken is smoked "low and slow"—a phrase I normally associate with brisket and pulled pork—to get a deep, distinct smoky flavor that penetrates as deeply into the flesh as the brine does. I don't understand the physics of smoking well enough to know how this works, but somehow Joe did manage to smoke the chicken to the point where every single bite of it was redolent. The nearly assaultive combination of varying textures (outer crunch, inner juiciness, roasted skin) and varying flavors (brine, smoke, chicken meatiness) was explosively addictive.
There's a part of me that feels I may be over-selling Joe's chicken, but I can only report my own perspective and experience. I'm not kidding when I say I've never had anything like this sort of chicken before. Joe's smoked fried chicken is the some of the best chicken I've ever tasted. No dryness; no absence of flavor—none of the usual pitfalls associated with flawed chicken. Addictive. Nothing but singing angels and erect nipples.
That said, the platter's sheer size defeated me, and I ended up eating only about 85% of the food. I asked the ever-ready non-Korean server to pack up the remaining 15%—a breast/wing and a leg—which I then took home with the intention of eating it for tomorrow's lunch.
Someone made a remark about there not being any dessert on the menu—not that any of us was in any condition to eat more. We were all absolutely stuffed, ready to explode, and it was with great difficulty that we heaved ourselves to our feet to pay our separate checks and waddle out the door.
Joe, meanwhile, had appeared a bit before we were finishing up dinner. I had texted him when dinner started, wondering where he was. He hadn't texted back, very likely because he was busy—either in the kitchen or out somewhere doing an errand. He stopped by while we were eating to ask how we were enjoying the meal, and we all gave him a thumbs-up. Later on, as we were getting ready to pay, we had the chance to talk with Joe a bit. He mentioned that it had been a crazy day that had started off slowly—nobody at first, then eventually a crowd (the pub was already pretty full when I arrived a bit after 7:30PM). Joe was handling the crowd with half his usual staff, and given the attentive quality of the service with only half a staff, I'd say that Joe was and is running his place quite well.
Joe himself looked tired. I felt a lot of sympathy for him. His pub/resto has only just started; I'm sure he's still working out the kinks, but I think he's doing a marvelous job. Starting a business in a foreign country is never easy, but Joe has had extensive experience both writing about the food industry and actually working inside the food industry, so he didn't enter into this endeavor as a complete newbie. Far from it. That said, I'm sure the reality of what he's embarked upon is weighing down on him.
"You kicked Linus's ass," I told him, but Joe didn't exactly look happy when I said that. From Joe's perspective, he and Linus are simply adding their voices to a burgeoning chorus of Western-food joints in Korea; the way Joe sees it, their relationship is more complementary than competitive, and I suppose that makes sense, especially since Joe is way out west in the Omokgyo/Mokdong neighborhood as opposed to planting his flag in Itaewon like everyone else. Joe moved on to talking with Charles, Patrick, and Tom. Tom was his usual, affably jokey self, and he got Joe to belly-laugh once or twice.
Here's a pic of Joe. I told him to look as tired as possible.
Here are Patrick, Tom, and Joe:
In the final picture, we have Charles, Patrick, and Joe, with Charles doing his cheerfully obnoxious thing—an "action shot," as he called it. One weird thing about this photo: it's actually of a moment that didn't happen. I had taken two photos with Charles in it; I liked Joe's expression in the second photo, but enjoyed Charles's "action" pose from the first photo, so I spliced second-image Joe onto the first photo, and this is the result.
When I got home—I had stopped eating just in time, as it turned out, without allowing myself to become overstuffed—I puttered around a few hours before finally succumbing to temptation and finishing off the leftover chicken around midnight. The bird never even saw the inside of my fridge. That's how damn good it was. As I said: addictive.
I thought for a while about Joe's lack of desserts. I thought about maybe offering to make my mouce [sic] au chocolat for him to put on his menu; I have no qualms about sharing my recipe. But as I thought further, I realized that this wouldn't have worked: what Joe had done, in carefully constructing his menu and in explaining this menu's philosophy on his website, was to provide a consistently Alabamian theme throughout the whole dining experience. My panna cotta would have had no place on his menu; it would have been utterly inconsistent. From the BBQ-rub taters in Joe's Chickasaw Fries to the brine Joe had used for his chicken and pork to the sauces Joe had placed on the table, everything on that menu was reflective of a single, unified, self-consistent vision... and then it occurred to me that I hadn't gotten that vibe at either Manimal or Linus. Sure, Linus advertises itself as Alabama barbecue, but it was hard to see what was Alabamian about it when I sat down to eat. Pay careful attention to every step of Joe's meal, though, and you get a definite feeling that Joe is actively reaching back to his culinary roots to provide an experience that's not just generally American, but specifically regional, specifically Tuscaloosa and Chickasaw and all the rest.
I ate more at Joe's than I had at Manimal, for about the same price. I like Manimal a lot, but the Manimal experience definitely puts a dent in the wallet, especially with those expensive sides. Joe had also mentioned that he was the one who had put together all the food that day, a fact that I deeply appreciated. The guy is pouring his heart and soul into this project. I think he was smart to stay away from Itaewon; the neighborhood he's in has some Korean-style meat restaurants (that also smell pretty damn good as you're walking by them), but Joe McPherson's BBQ Pub is one of a kind. Even if he had chosen to settle in Itaewon, his pub would still have been one of a kind. I wish Joe nothing but success; I understand that he doesn't think of himself as in competition with either Linus or Manimal, but in my head, his pub ranks at the top, now that I've had a chance to experience three different visions of American BBQ in Seoul.
ADDENDUM: Joe texted me, after reading the above review, to note that he did indeed have a dessert the night we were there, but it had been erased from the board: Amaretto Strawberry Shortcake. "We have off-menu items," he wrote. Good to remember the next time I go there.
WARNING: In the same text conversation, Joe noted that he has just raised the prices on his menu. The meal I had, the Taste of Alabama Platter, went from W30,900 to W37,900. (I guess we're lucky to have gone when we did, eh?) Joe said the place is losing money, and at a guess, this may be due to the modest pricing. The pub is still having its shakedown cruise, I think; it'll be a while before things begin to stabilize. Luckily, I'll be going back to the pub more frequently than I normally do for most midrange-budget restaurants, so I'll be collecting data points over the next year. Stay tuned. Stay ravenous.
*One part of Joe's website says the chicken is brined "overnight"; another part says the chicken is brined "for a day." The pork shoulder that Joe uses for his pulled pork is injected and allowed to rest for a full 24 hours. Exactly how much ass is being kicked, here?