Tong Tong Korean Barbeque: Food and Family for the Soul

“[In] Korean Culture we share everything,” said Seonok Lee, owner of Tong Tong, a Korean barbecue restaurant on Academy Boulevard.

Photo by Daniel Sarché

Lee,decked in an apron, walked from one table to the next to make sure customers were satisfied. The design of the restaurant itself is simple, with white walls displaying framed pictures, a television at the back playing K-pop music videos, and wooden tables and booths lining the walls. Although filled with several customers, the large space of the restaurant sustained a calm and quiet atmosphere conducive to good dinner conversation.

Within minutes of taking a seat, a waitress, Grace Cha, arrived at the table to offer assistance. Knowing nothing about Korean barbeque posed no problem because Cha recommended her favorite dishes. “Korean food has a lot of variety,” Cha said. “The difference is, it’s very healthy, so not a lot of fried food, and mostly vegetables.”

Before the main dishes were served, Cha approached the table with a cart she wheeled out from the kitchen. The cart was decorated with an array of small dishes that each held a different Korean delight; from small fish cakes and spiced tofu, to kimchi, baby shrimp and vegetables, each tiny dish had its own flavor, texture, and spice. “American food, it’s like the same ingredients, but you cook it differently,” Cha said. “But in Korean food, the ingredients … there are so much.”

Cha talked about how the display of dishes that covered the table was only a small representation of Korean tastes. The selection of small tastes came with large pieces of lettuce, self-assorted lettuce wraps— a way to entertain your taste buds before the main dishes arrived.

From the beginning, Cha had recommended we share each dish ordered, as each taste is unique and worth trying. “American culture is all [about] customized, right? But Korean culture is all the family,” said Lee, addressing the notion of Korean cuisine as a shared dining experience. The dishes first provided seemed to be a way of easing into the family-style dining experience, as the small plates sit in the middle of the table for everyone to enjoy. When the appetizers and main courses were pushed out on a grey cart, we had to rearrange items on the table to ensure that all the food could fit. Although Cha assured each dish was meant for one person, the portions felt intimidatingly large, and sharing thus felt like the best solution.

From japchae, a dish of sweet potato noodles with beef and vegetables, an “appetizer” that could serve as anyone’s main course, to bulgogi, thinly sliced beef marinated in sweet and spicy seasoning with onion, green onion, and mushroom, the flavor of each dish at Tong Tong is incomparable. Hot pot is a classic Korean dish, served as if still cooking in a wide, shallow, metal pot, and perfect for two people to share. The dish is composed of broth, meat, vegetables, and a variety of seasonings and spices. The menu offers a large variety of hot pot options.

“They are very proud that they can share Korean culture,” said Cha, as Lee stood smiling by our table.

“As soon as I walked into Tong Tong, I was engulfed in the aroma of what seemed like a hundred indescribable foreign spices,” said junior Jackie Bonasia. “I knew I was in for a treat. The atmosphere itself was plain, nothing special. But the food was incredibly special to say the least. There was such a variety of vegetables and meats, all of which were healthy and felt light, a result of cooking with little to no oil. This was my first experience trying Korean food, and I have to say I was impressed and can’t wait to eat more in the future!”

Not only is Tong Tong a restaurant and cuisine that is centered around sharing, but it is also a family-owned, and family-filled business. After 10 years of success with Tong Tong, Lee said she has no desire to open other locations in Colorado, as she credits the authenticity of the food on the menu to the restaurant’s family ties and closeness.

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