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22 Mar 2016

McPherson’s BBQ Pub – Last Saturday evening, HJ and I met up with Kevin, Tom, and Patrick at the new McPherson’s BBQ Pub in Omokgyo, run by Joe McPherson of ZenKimchi fame. This was something that we had all been looking forward to for quite a while, and I was happy that the day had finally arrived. (When you’re done here, you can go read Kevin’s take on our trip, although I can say right now that I agree on all counts.)

“McPherson’s BBQ Pub in Omokgyo, Seoul, South Korea, has the best chicken I have ever eaten.”

Dinner came after what turned out to be a rather long day. HJ and I somehow ended up at the Original Pancake House for brunch yet again. Thanks to a department function the night before, I was recovering from a relatively mild hangover, and we got a late start as a result. The original idea had been to do some hiking, but with the dreaded yellow dust out in full force and me not feeling entirely awesome, we didn’t leave the house until eleven. We were on the #4 subway line and still hadn’t figured out what we wanted to do for lunch when HJ suggested OPH. Koreans may favor haejangguk (often translated as “hangover soup”) for the mornings after their many, many drinking sessions, but for me pancakes may be the perfect remedy. I had a healthy stack of six buttermilk pancakes with whipped butter and syrup—I didn’t bother with any of the fancy toppings—and by the end of the meal I was feeling as right as rain.

I was also feeling full, so we decided to walk from Itaewon to Myeong-dong (a pretty decent hike of a couple hours or so), where a friend was giving a talk about a book he is writing. After several hours of walking and a couple hours of a talk and Q&A, I was beginning to feel the need for sustenance once again. So when we arrived at McPherson’s at around a quarter past seven, I was sufficiently hungry to do justice to whatever Joe had to offer.

Patrick and Tom were already seated when we arrived; apparently they had been there since half past five, even though the place didn’t actually open until six. (You can’t really read it at this size, but the paper taped to the door in the photo above says: “Due to unforeseen circumstances and the fates testing our resolve, we will open at 6 p.m. 18:00.”) They had already started in on the beers and had finished off a basket of Chickasaw Fries (from the menu: “We take our fries and top them with slow smoked pulled pork. Then we smother them with sharp cheddar cheese, onions, jalapenos, sour cream, and our sweet Cola Sauce”). They both highly recommended the fries, so we ordered a basket to go with our Hand & Malt Extra Special Ales.

Here are the fries in all their glory. Kevin arrived not too long after we did, and the three of us finished these off in relatively short order. They were very tasty, and a good compliment to the beer. Incidentally, the beer was probably the most disappointing aspect of our meal. Both HJ and I deliberately went with the ESA, as it is one of our favorite Hand & Malt offerings, but it didn’t taste quite right. I like the ESA because it has a strong malt character and not a strong hop character, and it reminds me very much of an English extra special ale—but the version we had on Saturday tasted different. The malt was not really pronounced, and there was a noticeable hoppiness to it. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t what I remember as ESA. I don’t know if Hand & Malt changed the recipe or if something else was going on, but it was a little disappointing. (Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I know we didn’t get served the wrong beer, because there was nothing else on the tap menu with which it could have been confused that I wouldn’t have been able to identify. The H&M Belgian Wheat and Slow IPA are both very distinctive, and it wasn’t either of those.)

Anyway, I can’t blame the beer on Joe, and to be honest I probably spent more time writing that paragraph above than I did thinking about the beer. The fries were good enough that I didn’t care—just the right combination of sweet, salty, savory, and sour, with the kick of jalapenos to cut through just when you think things might be getting a little heavy. Delicious.

When it came time to order our meals, we each went with the “Taste of Alabama Platter,” which is a platter of pulled pork, smoke fried chicken, side dishes, and bread. There are three different sizes: regular (100 g of pork, half a chicken, and two sides), large (200 g of pork, a whole chicken, and three sides), and OMFG (300 g of pork, 1.5 chickens, and four sides). HJ and I got a regular to split, Tom and Patrick got a large to split, and Kevin got a large to split... with himself. For our two sides we got whiskey beans and cole slaw—there was also mac & cheese, which the others got, and two other side options as well. Suggestion: Put the side dishes on the menu! It could just be because my brain was fried after a long day, but I had to ask our waiter what the sides were twice.

While we waited for our food, Kevin tried the various sauces. There were three sauces on the table: Tuscaloosa sauce, Sweet Cola sauce, and Alabama White Sauce. Here, Kevin is sampling the Tuscaloosa sauce, which is a spicy (but not necessarily hot) cumin-flavored sauce. The Alabama White Sauce was a vinegary mayonnaise-based sauce that I liked a lot. I had heard about the cola sauce and wasn’t particularly keen on the idea, but it turned out to be not nearly as sweet as I thought it would be, and was in fact quite nice. I would not recommend squirting it directly into your mouth, though, as Kevin did.

Our food arrived, and Kevin rejoiced at the sight of the large platter. He is, if nothing else, ambitious. Our own regular-sized platter was more modest, but looked quite tasty nonetheless.

The smoke fried chicken is trying to hide underneath the two buns, but it would prove to be a futile gesture. We started in on the pulled pork first, and I was immediately impressed. I am not a fan of overly sweet pulled pork, and this was just right. It was also very tender and, as Kevin pointed out in his review, endowed with a generous amount of bark. My one regret is that we did not finish off the pulled pork right away. Once it had cooled down, it was not nearly as tasty, and I think the chicken could have waited a little longer—unlike pulled pork, chicken does not need to be piping hot to be good. So if you get the Taste of Alabama, I would recommend going whole hog (ahem) on the pork first and then moving to the chicken. (Pro tip: Making little pulled pork sliders dressed with cole slaw and sauce, as we all did, is a fun and tasty way to consume the pig.)

There is a reason why we suddenly left off of the pulled pork and did not return to it until it was cold: the chicken. My eyes lit up—heck, I think everything lit up—when I took the first bite. It was amazing. I would say that it does exactly what it says on the tin, in that you get the deep smoky flavor and the crunchy shell of fried chicken, but that doesn’t really do it justice. All that flavor that is imparted by the long, slow smoke is trapped into the bird by the frying process, and as a result it all comes bursting out when you bite into it. About a half hour after the food had come out, Patrick tore off a piece of his chicken and held it up to show us the juices still dripping off of it. I regret that I did not get a photo of this, but once we started eating the camera was forgotten.

When I first tore into the chicken, I don’t know if I was thinking of much of anything but just getting it into my mouth as quickly as is acceptable in polite society. But as my brain caught up with my taste buds, I realized that something special was happening here. “I think,” I said hesitantly, “that this might be the best chicken I have ever eaten.” I said it in a tone of mild disbelief—surely I couldn’t have lived over four decades on this earth and never had chicken this good. But no matter how I racked my brain, I could not remember having had better chicken. Once the words had left my mouth, they sounded faintly ridiculous, and I glanced around furtively at my dining companions to gauge their reactions. Patrick was nodding vigorously. Tom was smacking his lips. And Kevin was assessing his platter like a general determining the best way to decimate the enemy arrayed before him.

So I’ll own it: Yeah, McPherson’s BBQ Pub in Omokgyo, Seoul, South Korea, has the best chicken I have ever eaten. If there is a caveat to be appended here, it would be that I am not all that familiar with the barbecue traditions of the south, especially when it comes to chicken. I suppose it is possible that southern-style barbecued chicken is all this good. If it is, then southerners have been doing us northerners a great injustice for many years, denying us this pleasure. I suspect, though, that what Joe serves up is representative of the finest Alabama barbecue you might find, not your run-of-the-mill southern barbecue. At any rate, the term “finger-lickin’ good” has never been more apt, in my opinion.

In terms of meat offerings, the pulled pork and the smoke fried chicken are all you get at McPherson’s BBQ Pub. Joe is not trying to be a jack-of-all-trades, at least not yet. Had either the pork or the chicken been sub-standard, this would have been disappointing, but when your pork and chicken are this good, what else do you need? I love me some barbecue ribs, but at no point in the evening did I think, “Man, you know what I could use right now? Some barbecued ribs.” No, I was thinking that I could use a bigger stomach so I could eat more smoke fried chicken!

For the sake of completeness, I should say that both sides we had were very good, even if the whiskey beans didn’t taste obviously of whiskey. I wonder if I would have noticed any difference had they simply been called “baked beans.” This is not really a quibble, though, as they were still tasty. The cole slaw was also excellent and, as I mentioned above, made for a great pairing with the pulled pork.

When we finished eating, we met a very tired-looking Joe. He was nice enough to chat with us for a bit, and I did my usual cheesy thing of posing for a photo with the owner. I’ve actually known Joe for a while, even if our paths haven’t crossed all that much—a number of years ago I did a podcast with him. I’m happy to know him now as a restauranteur and a fine cook to boot.

I snapped this shot of Kevin talking with Joe while I was waiting outside. It also serves to give you an idea of the decor of the place, which is... let’s say “eclectic.” Notice the crooked picture frame right between Kevin and Joe here. Patrick pointed this out to us early on, citing it as an example of why you didn’t want to have too many picture frames on the wall (and also the fact that they will get very dusty). To be honest, I found the combination of the patterned wallpaper and the various and sundry picture frames to be a little too busy. It felt a little like I was having dinner in the dining room of that crazy old grandmother who never throws anything away—but I can’t say that it affected my enjoyment of the meal.

We did not see any dessert on the menu, and we all agreed that this was a little odd. An addendum to Kevin’s review revealed that there was indeed a dessert item available, it just wasn’t on the menu. I’m not sure that we would have ordered a dessert even if we had known about it. We were all quite full, and Kevin had to admit that the large platter had defeated him—he got his remaining chicken to go. (Word has it that he got revenge on the chicken later that night.) The regular platter turned out to be just enough food for HJ and me—we were full, but we did not feel uncomfortable. Dessert would have been overkill at that point.

Here is the posse after leaving the restaurant, which is back around the corner to the left, beyond the vertical white sign advertising octopus (nakji). We have Kevin on the far left, then Patrick, Tom (who was apparently so full that the camera had a hard time keeping him in focus), and HJ. There was no thought of heading anywhere else for dessert, and we walked the short distance back to the subway station and eventually went our separate ways.

And now, at the end of this review, I suppose I should try to sum things up. I went into this with fairly high expectations, knowing what I knew about Joe and how much he knew about and loved food. Yet even those high expectations were exceeded. I expected the chicken to be good—I did not expect it to be the best chicken I have ever had. The pulled pork was also excellent, but through no fault of its own must take second place to the chicken.

As far as the location goes, Omokgyo is definitely off the beaten path for this sort of thing. You would expect a restaurant like this to pop up in the vicinity of Itaewon / Noksapyeong / Gyeongnidan Road, and I think McPherson’s BBQ Pub would have done well there. There, Joe would have had the advantage of heavy traffic and people out looking for this sort of fare. However, Joe is a fairly well-known figure and will benefit greatly from word of mouth (like this review and Kevin’s review), so I’m not sure how much of a handicap that will be. Omokgyo has to be cheaper than Itaewon and its environs, which is a huge advantage, and Joe has the opportunity to carve out a niche for himself there. And the truth is that nothing is ever really that far away with Seoul’s public transportation system (for us, Omokgyo is only a few minutes farther away than Itaewon).

I think it all boils down to a simple question: Is McPherson’s BBQ worth heading out to Omokgyo for? The answer, of course, is yes, it is very much worth it. And I know that HJ and I will be back for more.

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