Review: Linus’ BBQ in Itaewon
My first experience of American BBQ – the real thing, not a gloopy plate of ribs in TGI Friday’s – came at the mighty Dreamland BBQ in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the best part of two decades ago. The menu was simple: ribs and sliced white bread, with a sign on the wall warning you that there were “no fries, no slaw… don’t even ask!” The food was a thing of beauty, one thing done eminently well, and from that time on I was hooked, with the disastrous effects on my waistline that are there for all to see.
Being Scottish, I am no expert in American-style barbecue (though I am a world expert on deep-frying stuff), but I know what I like. What I don’t like are ribs, chicken and assorted other meats coated in multiple layers of sickly-sweet BBQ sauce, indifferently cooked and then served up at inflated prices. In Korea, that has certainly been the way of things, with the odd honourable exception such as Beale Street in Hongdae which does a decent approximation of southern-style barbecue, albeit at very un-Tuscaloosa prices.
Linus Kim has enjoyed underground fame for some time now, his pop-up events emerging in Itaewon and around sporadically like golden tickets hidden in a candy bar, his band of loyal fans growing with each unheralded appearance, lines of happy eaters queuing for seconds and third of his great pulled pork and ribs. So it was with considerable excitement that we discovered that Linus was opening his very own BBQ restaurant in a well-hidden backstreet of Itaewon. I ended up going about four times in the fortnight of his soft opening phase, but with the “Grand Open” having taken place this past Friday, I can now share this gem with you, albeit reluctantly.
The menu presented to us in recent weeks has varied, depending on what’s good, what’s available and what’s cookin’. As the menu becomes less experimental, that may change. The staple standby is the pulled pork sandwich (above), and it’s great. Linus also offers a pulled pork plate for 3,000 won or so more, which gives you a bigger helping of meat with fries, slaw and a couple of slider buns for company. I would have liked a bit more bread – it wasn’t sufficient for the meat in the serving – but otherwise this was top-notch fare.
The brisket sandwich (slightly fuzzy photo, above) is also magnificent, perhaps my favourite. Juicy, tasty… just yeah. Good food, presented simply. And everything comes with some very fresh and tasty slaw – not really my thing, but well made nonetheless.
Over my visits we tasted ribs two ways; first deep-fried, which I present here in all their malevolent goodness:
I won’t lie: even I found this a bit much, a very rich item indeed. It was damn good, but I don’t think I’ll be ordering this again soon without a cardiologist on speed-dial. The more traditional ribs come very lightly sauced, with a small squeeze bottle of BBQ sauce on the side – brought to the table warm, a fantastic little touch. I so much prefer this model to the dump-a-gallon-of-sauce paradigm you get at other places.
The ribs were tender, succulent and full of flavour – an instant favourite. On a subsequent visit we were offered a rib sandwich, which in true Alabama style is three ribs, bone and all, sticking awkwardly out of a white bun like Peter Crouch on a beanbag chair. Also great, though I never quite got the point of the bread (I used it for the surplus pulled pork).
At various points, our food came with onion rings or shoestring fries. There was also some great mashed potato and gravy, and the frankly outstanding deep fried mac’n’cheese balls (below) with a little bit of bacon and jalapeno mixed in there. Cut in half and dipped in that warm BBQ sauce..God, I’m salivating just thinking about them.
What else does Linus’ BBQ have going for it? A selection of proper beers such as Magpie Pale Ale and imported American options such as Heretic and Indica, and some bourbons for those who like to partake in such sinful activities. A generous outside seating area, which is pretty horrible in the July weather but will be absolutely lovely on a warm and dry late summer’s night (or, looking ahead, next May and June). Friendly and attentive service, which one hopes will cope with what will surely be a huge influx of visitors in coming months.
And, most of all, the reasonable prices. I haven’t attached price tags to the dishes I’ve talked about because we were there in Linus’ soft opening stage and the prices may go up (though you can see some of those price tags on the menu pictured near the top of this post). But I really hope that they don’t, or at least, that they don’t go up by very much.
Could there be criticisms? I don’t know. Some people may find the food undersauced or underspiced – it’s not hot, it’s doesn’t jump out on your palate with hobnailed boots, it doesn’t reek of hickory smoke let alone Liquid Smoke. Barbecue devotees from Alabama or North Carolina reading this may be able to list all sorts of ways in which this restaurant falls short of the ideal from your own home town. So be it.
But this is great food at a very fair price – more expensive than eating samgyeopsal down the road, yes, but less money than other comparable places in the city, foreign and Korean-owned alike, for a far better product, the product of a lot of time, care, planning and training, and I for one am happy to pay a premium for damn fine stuff like this. The foreign food scene in Seoul has changed so much in just the past three or four years, and Linus’ BBQ is, hopefully, at the heart of a new iteration in this trend. There will be imitators, but they probably won’t be as good. Go, before Tasty Road finds it and you can never get a seat again.
- Category: American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Brisket sandwich, ribs
- Subway: Noksapyeong (녹사평역) exit 4 or Itaewon (이태원역) exit 4
- Directions: Just to the left of McDonald’s in Itaewon is a staircase leading down to the basement floor of the clothing arcade next door. Walk down past the clothes shops and Linus’ BBQ is at the end of the corridor and out the door. Alternatively, you can walk along the little alleyway behind the Itaewon main street – keep your eyes peeled for the outside seating area, which is well hidden. No, no map this time. I don’t want it to be too easy to find. I want to be able to get a table next time.
- Hours: Generally 6-10pm Tuesday – Friday and possibly all day on the weekends, though I wouldn’t swear to any of this.
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