The success of the Chipotle Mexican Grill revolutionized Tex-Mex cuisine in America. Diners responded to the restaurant chain’s fast-casual, assembly-line menu, where they could watch staff make their burritos and burrito bowls as they dictated what did and didn’t go into them.
Slowly but surely, we’re starting to see the Chipotle model applied to other cuisines. Piccolo Pronto, which opened in The College of New Jersey’s Campus Town in 2016, uses it to serve pizza and pasta. And last fall, two more restaurants opened with the same idea—The Simple Greek in Hamilton, which we wrote about last month, and KBG Korean BBQ and Grill in Princeton.
KBG has been open since October at 180 Nassau St., between Lil Thai Pin and the recently closed Marhaba Middle-Eastern restaurant. Down the alley next to Lil Thai Pin is Taste of Mexico. It is the latest restaurant to establish a location first in New Brunswick before making its way down Route 27.
Although there are a number of Asian fusion restaurants in the area with Korean dishes on their menus, including Nassau Sushi across Nassau and Soonja’s Cafe down on Alexander, KBG is the first in Mercer County to call itself a Korean BBQ restaurant.
Like Chipotle and The Simple Greek, KBG’s menu is small, and so is the restaurant: there are just a handful of seats that often fill up for lunch, leaving take-out your only realistic option at times. The main attractions are bowls of rice, lettuce or cabbage topped with proteins, veggies and condiments ($8.45 to $10.95), or tacos or burritos ($9.95) stuffed with the same ingredients. Proteins include bulgogi (marinated beef), chicken, breaded chicken (katsu), spicy pork, tofu, shrimp tempura and Spam, and you can choose from among white, fried and kimchi-fried rice.
There are several default combinations, or you can create your own mix of rice, protein and toppings. LA Style comes with chicken on a bed of white rice with lettuce, corn, tomato, cilantro, lime juice, Asian vinaigrette and smokey KBG sauce. KBG Style has bulgogi, red cabbage, kimchi, pickled cucumbers, bean sprouts and KGB sauce on a bed of kimchi fried rice. Other topping options include fried egg, cheese and sour cream.
There are also a few side items available, including fries ($6.95), mandoo (fried dumplings—5 for $6), and soondoobu (spicy tofu soup—$9.95 to $11.95), as well as chicken tenders and wings offered with eight different sauces, including citrus pepper and mango habanero.
A couple of colleagues and I stopped into KBG one day last month to try some of the bowls. We ordered an LA Style bowl and a Katsu Style bowl. The latter is breaded chicken and shrimp tempura on white rice topped with mandoo, spring roll, Katsu sauce, smokey KBG sauce and a fried egg. We also got a create-your-own bowl with bulgogi, cabbage, rice, corn, egg, kimchi, and KBG sauce.
We agreed that both chicken bowls were on the bland side. The chicken katsu was room temperature and bone dry, like it had been out a while, while the BBQ chicken was also dry and unappealingly greasy. The overcooked white rice seemed straight out of a rice cooker and despite the presence of quite a bit of sauce per bowl, there just was not a ton of flavor. The KBG sauce, whether smokey or not, underwhelmed us all, sweet, not smokey, and not assertive.
The bulgogi was our favorite of the proteins we tried: juicy and tender with a hint of sweet chili sauce. It couldn’t really be called grilled—clearly it is pan fried—but it is satisfying.
In general we enjoyed the veggie toppings, which were generally fresh and refreshing. The lighter ingredients offset the heavier meat in a way that worked well. The sour kimchi added a necessary kick to the dishes overall.
It’s the kimchi that really encapsulates my main critique of KBG. It’s too timid, decidedly lacking in funk, and that’s true of everything I ate there. We live in a time when people are seeking out new flavors and textures, but KBG is still calibrated for the mainstream taste.
If you’re looking to dip your toe in the waters of Korean cuisine, KBG is a sensible place to start. But if you’re hoping to have an authentic international experience, KBG—like Chipotle vis-à-vis Mexican food—probably isn’t the place to find it. As one taster put it, KBG was kind of like eating a Korean BBQ recipe we found online and made at home for ourselves.
Still, it’s easy to see the appeal of the KBG concept. Portions are generous, and customers can readily fine-tune their meals to suit their palates. Calorie counters can put together a dish that wouldn’t ruin their diets. A heaping bowl or a stuffed burrito plus some wings or fries should fill any empty stomach, and with so many toppings to choose from regulars would find it difficult to grow bored with the menu. KBG is open from 11 to 9 daily. On the web: eatkbg.com.
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Thinking of the blah rice at KBG makes me want to stop in to either Aryana Grill or Afghan Kabob and Grill on Route 33 in Hamilton. I like the Afghani rice quite a bit at both restaurants; Afghan Kabob’s rice is warming, with a pronounced cinnamon flavor. In Aryana’s I don’t detect much cinnamon flavor, and I haven’t figured out just which spices I can sense in it, but I like it just as much.
There are times when rice satisfies by providing texture and bulk, serving primarily as a carrier for other flavors, but a plateful of long-grain Afghani rice from either restaurant would easily stand as a meal on its own.
But my favorite thing at either restaurant is undoubtedly Aryana’s side dish of stewed chickpeas. Spoonful for spoonful the chewy, melty, umami-loaded stew may be the most satisfying mouthful around. It’s one of those things that’s so good, I’m content to have a small amount of it each time. More would seem overindulgent. Anyone who likes the braised white beans at Zoe’s Kitchen has got to try Aryana’s chickpeas.
Every once in a while there’s a side dish at a restaurant that’s so good, it’s the thing you want to go there to have, rather than any of the main dishes the place is known for. Sometimes that thing doesn’t even reach the level of side dish. I am pretty sure there are times I wanted to go to DeLorenzo’s Pizza not just because I liked the pizza, which I did, but also because I have always thought they had the best romano cheese to sprinkle over top.
And of course, there are many in the area who still remember the $3 blue cheese dressing at Pete Lorenzo’s Steakhouse.
One of the restaurants I go to most these days is La Taqueria, on U.S. 206 in Lawrence. Ostensibly I go there for the tacos al pastor, especially on Tuesday when they are just $5.99 for lunch, which is a steal.
But the real reason I am there, and why I always eat in rather than take out, is the red salsa. It’s the best salsa I have ever had. It’s thoroughly pureed, with a distinct chipotles-in-adobo character—and while I’m there, I scoop up as much as I can with every bite of housemade tortilla chips they serve with it. Simple pleasures like this are the best pleasures, if you ask me.
The salsa verde is great too.