A perfectly cooked fried egg tops off the bibimbap, which has a bounty of beautiful veggies.
Five Star Korean BBQ gives out a number of false cues right from the get-go. Despite its name, the place doesn’t currently offer Korean barbecue (that’s the dish that’s cooked on tabletop grills), although it is in the works.
Nor is it a sushi place, despite a bright green sign in the window that reads “Sushi Fish.” Five Star, in the former Blair Street BBQ at the corner of Blair Street and East Washington Avenue, focuses on Korean cuisine.
I was eager to try the bibimbap, as it’s one of my favorite Korean dishes. This beautiful, veggie-laden rice dish comes with a rainbow of turnips, zucchini, bean sprouts, carrots, mushrooms, spinach and fernbrake (a Korean green, also known as gosari). It also has a small amount of beef, which the menu describes as “ground.” Instead, the beef is thinly sliced, which was a pleasant surprise. The dish is topped with a fried egg, perfectly cooked with crispy edges. For an extra buck, get it in a hot stone bowl, which will transform some of the rice into a crunchy delight.
Meat lovers should try the bulgogi, the closest Five Star currently gets to barbecue. Sliced chicken, pork or beef is marinated in a sauce that offers a magic combination of sweet and umami, and is then grilled and brought to the table sizzling. Save for some sesame seeds, there’s no garnish, but it doesn’t need any. It’s simply a pile of meaty goodness, served with a side of rice. I tried the beef, and every bite was tender. Bulgogi is a simple dish, but has big, rich flavors.
I was excited to find ja jang myun, a Korean take on a Chinese dish, on the menu. It’s popular in Korea, but I’ve never seen it at any Madison-area restaurants. A family-size bowl of wheat noodles comes buried under a thick, black soybean sauce topped with julienned cucumbers. Hidden in the dark sauce are tiny cubes of pork, potato, carrot and zucchini. It’s sweet and slightly metallic-tasting, making me think of SpaghettiOs (and not in a bad way).
There are more than a dozen entree-sized soups on the menu. Many of them have a rich, red spicy broth that derives its color and much of its flavor from the same hot pepper flakes used in kimchi, the fermented cabbage that’s a staple of Korean cuisine. Yook gae jang includes beef and a flurry of add-ons, including green onion, mushroom, egg and thin rice noodles. Some restaurants skip the fernbrake (it can be expensive), but here it adds a wonderful earthiness. The shredded beef, in a tangled ball in the middle of the bowl, is fairly bland, especially compared to the beef in other dishes.
Pescatarians will have an easier time ordering here than vegetarians, who may end up ordering meat entrees without the meat. There’s no dedicated vegetarian section to the menu.
Entrees come with traditional banchan, an assortment of side dishes for the table to share. During my visits, two types of housemade kimchi made an appearance, along with pickled turnips, seaweed, broccoli, eggplant, a green salad and fish cakes. While some Korean restaurants bring these sides early in the meal like an appetizer, here they were always served simultaneously with the entrees.
The banchan, along with generously sized entrees, makes appetizers almost superfluous, but it’s worth making room for the Korean dumplings called mandoo. The mandoo wrappers are as thin as noodles, with great texture. The steamed kimchi mandoo are plump, belly button-shaped dumplings filled with chopped kimchi and ground pork. They’re steamy and soft, a perfect way to start a meal. The meat mandoo is equally delicious. Filled with pork, glass noodles, cabbage and carrot, it’s good steamed or fried.
Even though the food at Five Star is very good, the location leaves something to be desired. Five Star is marooned at a busy intersection with a very small parking lot that’s difficult to park in; otherwise, plan on parking at least a block away on East Main Street.
Inside, bare purple walls and a mismatched tile floor don’t add anything in terms of atmosphere. Service is quirky, though friendly. Our server was at our table every few minutes to chat, but dirty dishes piled up, and water glasses remained unfilled.
There are issues in the kitchen as well. When I attempted to order a kimchi pancake and kimchi jjigae soup, I was told the kimchi wouldn’t be fermented enough to use in those dishes for 10 to 15 days. (Apparently what kimchi there was ended up rationed to the banchan.) I was shocked. I can’t imagine a Korean restaurant surviving nearly two weeks without an ample supply of kimchi.
While the food that’s available is consistently good, Five Star Korean BBQ needs to get some kimchi. Stat.
Five Star Korean BBQ
605 E. Washington Ave., 608-630-9840, 11 am-10 pm Tues.-Sun., $6-$22