What is barbecue? It's a controversial question around these parts. Pitmasters, especially in Texas, take great pride in their smoke-based craft. The art of cooking meat via the indirect low heat of wood smoke is a time honored and culturally defining ritual. And yet, strictly speaking, it is just one of many ways to prepare what is known globally as barbecue.
All one truly needs to call a meal barbecue is some raw protein, indirect or direct heat from a flame, and time. By this standard, the popular Japanese barbecue concept, Gyu-Kaku, with more than 600 locations around the world and four in the Houston area, fits the bill — globally if not regionally.
This week's review of Gyu-Kaku (a combined review of three area locations) won't fit the standard Smoked Out template — one based on a set of parameters that are, frankly, irrelevant to this type of dining. Instead, we'll focus on the concept, the in-table grilling experience, and the quality of proteins offered.
As mentioned above, Gyu-Kaku has become a world famous concept for exporting table-side yakiniku (Japanese term for grilling) to the western world. It's worth noting, however, that Japanese barbecue is conceptually almost identical to Korean table-side barbecue and grilling culture in general — the latter having made its entrance into Houston's dining scene years before Gyu-Kaku. Where the differences lie is in the actual food, not the practice. To paraphrase one astute forum poster, if you're grilling Japanese food, it's Japanese. If you're grilling Korean food, it's Korean.
The first thing to note about any Gyu-Kaku location is that it is a chain. Not in the way that Barnaby's Cafe and Christian's Tailgate are chains. In the way that Cheesecake Factory and Chili's are chains. Though, thankfully, with exponentially better offerings. Having visited the Sugar Land, Midtown and Willowbrook outposts, each one is largely an aesthetic replication of the last; with Midtown boasting a slightly more upscale decor. Custom wood booths are separated by privacy partitions and, combined with laminated picture-aided menus, give off a highly westernized Japanese vibe.
An undeniable appeal of Gyu-Kaku is that, given the right order and time of day, it can be an exceptionally affordable and thrilling dining experience. Each order of house specialties yaki-shabu beef (thin-sliced and marinated), Angus beef ribs, toro beef (fatty belly), and horumon beef (large intestines) are $5 each ($4 during happy hour). Higher quality proteins like kalibi short rib, hanger steak and filet mignon all come in under $10. For reference, three orders of raw protein plus appetizer and a side of steamed rice is plenty for a date night. Throw in some $7 sake cocktails and fireside s'mores for dessert and you're still walking out for under $50.
But what about the barbecue? While some Gyu-Kaku locations around the world offer authentic charcoal grilling, each of the four Houston area locations offer only gas-burning grills. If you've tried the charcoal in-table grills at local Korean barbecue joints BBQ Garden or Flower Piggy, you'll know the charred, natural coal flavor can't be replicated with gas. That said, the simple pleasure of grilling your own beef and eating it straight off the flame is hard to beat, no matter the fuel. Additionally, despite its western bent, the menu's various miso and teriyaki based marinades do add a decidedly Japanese influence and zest to the affair.
We strongly suggest splurging on the $24 house specialty, Harami in Secret Pot. A half-pound harami (skirt) steak, served in a ceramic pot, marinating in a mild miso sauce. The hefty steak is thoroughly seasoned and, at a pinkish medium, is as tender as any fajita skirt steak in town.
Beyond beef, Gyu-Kaku's grilling fare includes pork belly, marinated chicken, small pots of garlic shrimp, foil-steamed veggies and more — perhaps too much more. In addition to raw veggies and protein, the massive chain-style menu includes sushi selections, noodle bowls, fried rice, and various hot and cold Japanese small plates. While it's easy to get distracted, we suggest sticking to what really matters, meat and fire.
Gyu-Kaku and the various Japanese and Korean barbecue joints like it may not fit your exact Texan definition of barbecue. Here, meat is cooked fast, under high heat and licked by blazing gas flames. And yet, as the sounds of sizzling fat and the smell of wafting beef smoke hit your ears and nose, you'll know in that moment — this is barbecue, and it's damned good.