Westwood, NJ 07675
April 23, 2017
Head to Westwood’s Kimchi Smoke for a uniquely Jersey food experience.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in New Jersey, Robert Cho started experimenting with Texas-style barbecue while working as a real estate broker in Bergen County. Cho taught himself the fundamentals of smoking meat, then he got creative. He took traditional Southern BBQ (Memphis-style pork shoulder, baby back ribs, Texas-style brisket) into new territory adding ingredients like smoked kimchi and creating mash-ups like “Korean Redneck Tacos” (pork shoulder with Korean slaw) that defy easy categorization. A decade later, Cho’s Kimchi Smoke is one of the most buzzed about restaurants in New Jersey. (Kimchi Smoke was a best new restuarant nominee in the inaugural Garden State Culinary Arts Awards.)
Cho refined his recipes at food festivals and barbecue competitions. After operating a small space in Bergenfield, NJ, Kimchi Smoke moved into a Westwood storefront in November 2016. (A second location is due to open in Montclair in May.)
Kimchi Smoke’s menu takes some time to digest. There’s BBQ meat straight up, on sandwiches, and in rice bowls. Popular options include Cho’s singular take on hot dogs (the K Town Dog with chili and cheese), wings, tacos (pork, brisket or bulgogi), chili, and some outstanding seasoned fries. Korean BBQ ribs and chicken wings feature a sweet Gochu red pepper glaze. The smoked kimchi chili, loaded with beans, is an addictively spicy creation. Cho’s “Fatboy BCS,” served on most sandwiches, is a sweet and tangy bourbon chipotle-based barbecue sauce.
The sandwiches are a bit messy. The “Austin Cho” looks unweildy on first glance, what with sliced brisket piled with kimchi, scallions and strangely, cheese, but it holds up suprisingly well on its brioche bun. The brisket, smoked for twelve hours, is excellent barbecue by itself. Cho’s added ingredients highlight the smoked meats. Match any meat with something pickled – the Korean slaw or smoked kimchi – and you’ll taste the power of contrasting flavors and textures. We did not try the “Austin Ramen” served on a ramen bun, or the “Chonut” – smoked brisket, smoked kimchi, Fatboy BCS, cheese, bacon, scallions – served on a glazed donut, but many NJ food people I respect, like NJ.com’s Pete Genovese, have raved about the Chonot. There’s even a sliced brisket “reuben” with smoked kimchi on buttered rye bread. Sides include mac & cheese and nachos. One pet peeve: the rice “bowls” are served in flimsy paper boxes that make for awkward eating, even for barbecue. Plates or actual bowls would be an improvement.
Order at the counter or grab a seat at one of the handful of tables. Country music on the sound system at Kimchi Smoke feels appropriate for the prominent American flag decor.
Whether you consider Cho’s inventions American BBQ with Korean tweaks, or simply Korean-American barbecue, just don’t call it fusion food:
“Kimchi Smoke is about the way Korean Americans have been eating for the last 30 to 40 years. We don’t eat fusion food. What Koreans are good at is making things better. And for food, we make it better by eating it with kimchi. As a Korean American, I’m not half Korean and half American. I’m 100% American and 100% Korean. 100% plus 100% is equal to 100%. So please don’t call me fusion and don’t call my food fusion! – #NotFusion!“
Whatever you call it, it’s food worth eating. I consider Kimchi Smoke 100% Jersey food.