The first time I had Korean Barbecue was about 15 years ago. I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect and my knowledge of Korean food was limited to kimchi. Now in 2023, it is one of my favorite food things to do. There are only a few people I know that share a similar level of love for food as me: Xak, Pablo, and Barb.
Barb loves Korean barbecue (after all, you can’t spell “Barbecue” without “Barb” 😏). However…. she does not eat beef. As someone who greatly enjoys steak, I would never turn down going to places like Morton’s, Fogo de Chao, and Texas Roadhouse. And believe it or not, neither does Barb. Since I order the same thing from all these places (steak. Surprise, surprise), I have no idea what else is on the menu, but Barb always seems to find good choices she can eat.
We decided to “meat up” at one of our favorite places: Sō Korean BBQ located in Centreville, Virginia. I’ve been to this place several times with Barb, and while we don’t need a reason to go to KBBQ, for this particular day we were celebrating a special occasion for both Barb and her partner, Buford. (Note: This visit took place in September 2023.)
My (Non) Korean Background
I’m by no means a Korean expert, nor am I Korean. However, I was a Korean language student for a few years. I attended classes 3 days a week, starred in a play, and spent many early mornings having conversation practice with a language partner living in Seoul. I’m also fortunate to have visited Korea and eaten a lot of the foods I’ve drooled over in my favorite Korean dramas.
Although I no longer have the rigorous language schedule that I once did, I still love watching kdramas, listening to SHINee, and I absolutely love Korean food.
Since I live in the DC area, I am blessed with easy access to plenty of Korean establishments including spas, Karaoke rooms, bakeries, grocery stores, and of course, Kbbq restaurants.
About Sō Korean BBQ
Sō has been around for quite a number of years now and replaced the previous tenant, Korshi, a Korean buffet and All You Can Eat (AYCE) BBQ. The owners of Sō also run Kogiya, a KBBQ in nearby Annandale, Virginia.
Sō is located in Pickwick Square shopping center with other Korean (and non-Korean) stores including a recently added 2021 bakery and coffee shop called O Bread and Cake. This has become a popular place to wrap up the evening after a gluttonous night of kbbq. Believe me, your stomach will make room.
The word “소” (pronounced “so”) literally means cow in Korean. While Sō is mostly known for their KBBQ (after all, it’s in the name), they do have other classic menu appetizers and entrees like mandu (만두 – dumplings), japchae (잡채 – glass noodles), and one of my personal favorites that I get at non-bbq restaurants: bibimbap (비빔밥 – a mixed rice dish with meat, veggies, and an egg on top).
If you do choose to go for the barbecue, there are pre-set all beef and all pork menus, some a la carte options where you order an individual meat, or you can order All You Can Eat (AYCE).
Like any buffet or AYCE place, it’s a matter of quality over quantity and your personal preference. With the pre-set menus and a la carte options, you can get access to some higher cuts of meat, whereas with the AYCE options, you can try a wide variety of meats.
As you can guess, Xak and I usually order All You Can Eat. Luckily, Barb and Buford are the same way. This is really the best choice for us since Barb doesn’t eat beef. AYCE allows us the flexibility to eat different meats so everyone can get what they want.
At Sō, AYCE comes in two options: A and B. You can view the exact menu and pricing on their website.
A consists of pork, beef, and chicken for $35 per person, whereas B costs $40 per person and includes all of A and some seafood options like shrimp and squid. Everyone at the table has to get the same option so choose carefully.
You can decide if you want to grill the meat yourself or have the servers do it for you. There’s a card at your table you can flip to indicate your choice. I’ve done it both ways, but if you’re new to this, I would recommend having the servers handle it for you.
A word of caution: Sō is loud, smoky, and can get very crowded. If you’re trying to go somewhere for a nice, quiet night, this is not the place. Also keep in mind that you’re literally sitting in front of a grill plate where flames can get high. Watch out for your eyebrows. 🤨
Making Reservations at Sō Korean BBQ
Every time I’ve been to Sō, it’s been very packed. There have been two times I’ve seen it fairly empty:
- The time I arrived at exactly 11 AM on a Sunday morning after running a 5k
- The time Barb and I ate here around 4 pm and finished about 5 rounds of meat in a record 37 minutes.
Even though these were off-times, I still had made a reservation for both of these.
Previously, the only way to make a reservation was to call. This year, Sō introduced an online reservation available through Tock on their website for any parties under 25.
You can still call if that’s your thing, but for those of us who don’t like phone interactions (ahem), the online reservation process is quick and painless. If your party is larger than 25, you have to call. I imagine though if you’re going out with 25 folks, you’re probably fine with calling people.
After making an online reservation, you receive a confirmation email and also a reminder email on the day of.
The whole point of this is that if you want to ensure you get a table, just make a reservation.
Interior and Decor
The waiting area is pleasant enough with decor that feels appropriate for a quick Pinterest or Instagram post. However, it can get crowded pretty easily, especially on weekend nights. Sō will not seat you until your whole party arrives, so make sure you go with people who are punctual.
Barb and Buford are typically pretty good at showing up on time, so no one ever has to sit around for too long.
There’s also a bar to order typical bar drinks, and some Korean specific alcohol including flavored sojus and makgeoli (milky rice wine).
One thing that I like about Sō is that it’s modern and it’s clean. This goes for the bathrooms too. There are multiple stalls and it’s brightly lit. They are located in the back of the restaurant, away from the hubbub.
On this particular day, we all showed up on time and were able to sit pretty quickly. The hostess came and led us to our table, walking us by several others with the delicious smells of freshly grilled meat and the sounds of happy chatter.
If it’s your first time at a Korean barbecue, you’ll probably see quite a bit of stuff at your table including a grill, sauces, and a ton of banchan (side dishes). At Sō, napkins and silverware including spoons, forks, and chopsticks are located in a drawer at your table for you to easily access at any time.
While banchan will vary from place to place, you will likely see some of the following:
- kimchi – salted, fermented vegetables with a lot of seasoning and spices. Napa cabbage kimchi is most commonly served at the Korean restaurants I visit.
- pajeon (파전) – a scallion pancake
- ssammu (쌈무) or danmuji (단무지) – pickled daikon radish. You might see pink slices or yellow strips. Xak uses danmuji when he makes kimbap (seaweed wrapped veggies, rice, and meat)
- bean sprouts
- potato salad – my absolute personal favorite!
- tofu soup
- steamed egg
Strangely enough, nobody ever wants the soup but me, and everyone loves the egg except me, so it’s a nice tradeoff. Everyone fights for the egg while I get to enjoy the soup all to myself. 😏
At Sō (and most places), the banchan has free refills, with the exception of the soup and egg which only consists of one free refill each. This is important, because once you eat the potato salad, you’ll realize you need many more refills. 😋
After settling in and placing your drink orders, the server takes your first order which usually consists of three meats at a time. You’re also served covered bowls of steamed rice.
For our first three, we usually start with brisket, pork belly, and bulgogi. This visit was no different.
I like starting with brisket (차돌 박이) because it’s shaved thinly and cooks up quickly. Unfortunately for Barb, she has to wait patiently for the pork belly to be grilled. Since there’s plenty of banchan though, the wait is tolerable.
Pork belly (삼겹살) looks similar to very thick bacon. There are a lot of varieties of pork belly, such as garlic pork belly, or spicy pork belly. We usually start off with the unmarinated version since it’s a great vessel for dipping sauce.
Bulgogi (불고기) is my favorite and literally means “fire meat.” It is thin strips of meat (in this case, beef. Sorry, Barb), and typically sirloin or ribeye. Since the bulgogi at Sō is already marinated, there’s no need to add any additional sauces. I usually just eat it with my rice and am very happy.
If you are new to Korean barbecue, these are great meats to start with and hopefully at least one will be a hit. 🤞There are also spicy versions if you’re interested in a little kick.
The Sauces and Extras
Sō has three different sauces: one is a salty dipping sauce (my personal favorite), a sweet plum sauce, and gojuchang (spicy red chili paste). You’ll likely want to dip your brisket and pork belly in one of them. You can also ask for some ssam (lettuce) and make a little wrap. You might also be served garlic and jalapeños to add some extra flavor.
Typically when the server cooks up the meat, we sit in silence nibbling on our radish or sprouts… all while staring hungrily at the grill. Outside of the background restaurant noises, the only sounds from our table are the sizzling meat and us smacking our lips along with some heavy breathing (that would be me).
When the meat is finally cooked, the server scoops it out with tongs and places it in a bowl, ready to be distributed and feasted and pounced on by everyone but Barb. (Sorry, Barb)
The server will then get the next meat onto the grill and the process repeats again and again and again. In our case, for this visit, the process repeated 7 times.
If you’re low on rice, sauces, or banchan, you can ask for more along with your meat orders. Just keep in mind, you can’t take things home. In fact, some bbq places will charge if there’s excessive food left over. After all, it’s all you can EAT, not all you can waste.
For this particular visit, we ordered the following:
- Pork Belly
- Pork Bulgogi
- Garlic Pork Belly
- Garlic Pork Belly (again)
- Garlic Pork Belly (again)
- Brisket (again)
- Bulgogi (again)
This sounds like a lot of food, and… ok, yeah it is. In fact, Buford tapped out around the 5th or 6th meat, but I was nonetheless proud of him mostly keeping up with Xak and me (self-proclaimed expert eaters) for so long. Xak and I tackled the last two orders on our own, right before we hit our time limit.
The End of the meal
In between some meats, grill plates will be changed out and replaced with a fresh one. When you’re done, they turn off the grill and everyone is sad. But at the end of the meal, the servers come to bring you your checks and also a complimentary non-alcoholic sweet rice drink called sikhye (식혜). It’s a really nice way to finish the first part of the night.
I say the first part of the night because I have never gone home immediately after Korean BBQ. As far as I’m concerned, the night is just beginning!
Although the four of us were pretty full, there were more festivities to celebrate, including a trip to O Bread and Cake just a few doors down for some Korean bread and coffee.
Good thing my pants have an elastic waist band.