Up until recently, I was wrong about some things. As far as Asian food was concerned, I always believed my world ended in Flushing. You could certainly travel east of there, but you’d find nothing but oceans – first, a traditionally liquid one; then, an ocean comprised entirely of European food. To my knowledge (or lack thereof), you’d have to travel as far as Kashgar before you found the next great Asian restaurant. But then we discovered Mapo BBQ.
Photo via Luke Kingma
You could take the 7 train as far as it goes without ever reaching Queens’ Murray Hill. Far beyond Flushing, past dozens of nondescript apartment complexes and a handful of residential dentists, lies this tiny neighborhood where our real journey begins. Looking more like a suburb of Pittsburgh than a borough town, Murray Hill is strikingly quiet and empty, even on a Sunday afternoon.
We took the rare LIRR ride to try what many call a legendary BBQ experience. Mapo, like most restaurants we love, is nothing special in terms of location, decor, or atmosphere. The beauty, of course, is found in what can be eaten. We huddled through a small doorway and were met by a single family enjoying lunch together. There were almost a dozen of them, and ten times as many plates spread across their tables. This was the place.
Tried to be discrete. Was not discrete. Photo via Luke Kingma
My favorite culinary experiences are exactly that – experiences. While most restaurants offer a standard, rushed itinerary, spots like Mapo treat you like family on Thanksgiving. It’s intimate and exhausting, and can easily turn into an all day affair if you’re not looking. Shortly after being seated, one server explained the menu while another prepared the charcoal. We knew we were here for ribs, and ribs we ordered: 2 orders of Kalbi Beef and 2 orders of BBQ Pork ended up being more than enough for five of us.
The charcoal is prepared. Photo via Luke Kingma
While we waited for the meat to arrive and the charcoal to warm, our servers brought out the “Banchan,” an endless array of carefully prepared vegetables, sauces, and sides. From kimchi and barbecued onions to grilled corn and spicy tofu soup, the selections were as eclectic as you’ll find in New York. I’m not exaggerating when I recall that we may have had three to four hundred thousand plates on our table. It was heroically overwhelming.
The “Banchan.” This was just the beginning. Photo via Luke Kingma
After grilling our meat for us right in the center of the table, it was time to begin our long awaited experimentations. Using massive pieces of lettuce as our canvas, we got to work. At Mapo and other Korean BBQ places like it, there are endless combinations to try. On one piece, you might pile up Kalbi beef, kimchi, tofu, and the spicy house sauce; on another, you might try BBQ pork, cucumbers, jalapeÃ±os, onions, and crab. One thing’s for certain, though – whatever you try will be impossibly delicious.
Getting intimate with our server. Photo via Luke Kingma
The complexity of the flavor combinations found here is currently unmatched, at least in my own personal history. Everything is seasoned to perfection, and there is truly something for everyone. Two hours later, after having tried dozens of things for the first time, our journey was coming to an end. Leaving the restaurant felt very much like coming back from a spirit-awakening adventure halfway across the world. There was suddenly so much to say; so much energy; so many realizations about the world that you didn’t see clearly before. And all of it just 30 minutes from Penn Station.
CU, meat. Photo via Luke Kingma
It’s safe to say that this is the most inspired I have been to share in a long time. Though it’s certainly out of the way, and though it may take a whole lot of convincing to get a group out to Murray Hill, I implore you to try Mapo BBQ. It offers one of the few culinary experiences in the city that can take you far, far away from New York. You will likely spend $30-$35 a person here, but trust me – this is a meal you can’t get in Manhattan for two to three times the price. Go. Go now.
One of our many creations. Photo via Luke Kingma
Afterword: Thanks to Connor for the recommendation!