THE THREE CHEFS behind Kim Jong Smokehouse are en fuego right now. Han Ly Hwang’s original Kim Jong Grillin’ cart is a perennial favorite, and Earl Ninsom is the mastermind behind Langbaan, Hat Yai, and PaaDee. And don’t forget Smokehouse Tavern’s BJ Smith, who took a four-episode turn on this season of Top Chef, expanded his barbecue empire into Vancouver, Washington, and is now putting the smoke in Kim Jong Smokehouse.
Kim Jong Smokehouse—with two locations, one in Pine Street Market and the other on Northwest 21st, in Smith’s original Smokehouse 21 location—specializes in bibimbap with smoked meats and steamed buns with pulled pork. It’s a fast-casual concept that, for Pine Street, encourages diners to bring a bowl back to the office, and entices those strolling Nob Hill to stop in for a quick lunch.
The problem? It’s hard to improve upon an institution, which Hwang’s bibimbap bowls already are. Kim Jong Grillin’ serves the scorched rice and japchae bowl with a fried egg over the top and your choice of grilled Korean meats for $10. At the Smokehouse, the basic bowl—which also includes sesame sprouts, daikon and cabbage kimchi, pickled mango, and sesame seeds—starts at $9. It is filling and satisfying on its own, especially with a hearty swirl of the house-made gochujang sauce mixed in.
Kim Jong Smokehouse also makes it clear that you should put a bird, cow, pork, or fish on it. It’s not essential, but here’s a best-to-worst ranking of the ways you can customize your bowl. (Also, if possible, dine in at the NW 21st location: The bowls are served in gorgeous Finex cast iron pans, a haute twist on the traditional Korean stone bowls that continue to crisp your rice as you go. Just don’t forget the handle is burning hot, or you’ll be resting your red knuckle on your $6 draft beer.)
1 Add both salmon and smoked oyster mushrooms. Yes, it adds an extra $8 on top of your $9 bowl, so it’s a big ask. But Kim Jong’s two best add-ons play well together: The cold smoked cured salmon is pinked to perfection, and the oyster mushrooms take on the dankness of the smoker, developing a flavor and chew that puts most of the meat options to shame.
2 Add either the salmon ($4) or the mushrooms ($4). Kimchi mayo with the salmon adds a sushi-like element, while the smoked kimchi sauce adds oomph to the oyster mushrooms. Vegetarians really luck out here.
3 Eat it plain with gochujang sauce. Add a $3.50 pulled pork steamed bun on the side if you must, but really, all you need is the bowl.
4 Add the chicken ($4). This is the best value if you’re very hungry, as a leg quarter is perched next to that runny fried egg. It’s cooked to a fall-off-the-bone level of doneness, which is great because chopsticks and drumsticks don’t quite mesh.
5 Add pulled pork ($4) or the kalbi short rib ($5). These signature meats were our least favorite, with the smoked kalbi taking on a brisket-like effect, while the pulled pork is forgettable.
The server at the NW 21st location says a cocktail menu is in the works—a must-needed addition, since La Croix is an outrageous $3 for a 12-ounce can. (I’ll take the hard stuff for a few bucks more, thank you.) The bowls have improved on each visit since Kim Jong Smokehouse opened at Pine Street last fall—here’s hoping this team can use their hotness to make this Smokehouse burn even brighter.
Sun-Thurs 11 am-9 pm; Fri-Sat 11 am-10 pm. No reservations. Online orders accepted.