Casual Korean, Easy on the Spice

Bulbap Grill in Marlboro is fast and busy.

Marlboro isn’t a college town. It’s a heavy-on-the-commuters residential community in western Monmouth County, where McMansions and well-groomed townhouse communities sit somewhat awkwardly amid homes that date back a century or so along with rapidly disappearing mid-century numbers once belonging to veritable Jersey pioneers.

So where did all these folks who look very college-age-y come from? Somehow, they are here at the new Bulbap Grill, which sits next to a Shop-Rite and around the bend from a Home Depot-anchored shopping center on Route 9. They’re here at the peak of evening feeding time, just as the families with little kids have eaten-and-run, but before the commuters arrive. They’re here, focused on phones or plugged into ‘buds, eating casual Korean fare ordered and fetched at a counter just like Chipotle taught a generation of diners to do.

The scene at Bulbap

If they’re grabbing fried chicken wings, they might be finding them on the too-sweet side, with a thick crust heavy on gooey sauce that begged for a sure shot of heat. They made me grateful we’d scored the tofu salad, a cleansing side dish of sliced plain soft tofu and very, very lightly pickled carrots sitting atop lettuce. Sesame dressing, a side to this side, is also on the mild side.

Tofu salad

I’d advise anyone looking for a non-Korean-style Korean dinner to get the wings, tofu salad and the jaeyuk taco, which is supposed to come with spicy pork. But those spices are tame and there’s a layer of cheese, a mop of red cabbage-carrot slaw and plain shredded lettuce to counter even the slightest bite of heat. As added insurance, the taco comes doused in a kiwi dressing that’s assuredly sweet.

Jaeyuk taco

OK, so can you get a buzz from heat with anything at Bulbap Grill? If you order one of the pajeons, a Korean pancake striped with kimchi, you’re going to need to BYO Sriracha because the accompanying jalapeno soy sauce and spicy mayo aren’t going to cut it. The kimchi isn’t punched up with chili peppers, the jalapeno is but a subtle note in the soy, and the mayo is a kissing cousin to Russian dressing.

Pajeons

Expecting tame might be the best way to approach Bulbap. After all, the bulgogi bowl, plumped with beef rib-eye, slivers of shiitakes, carrots and zucchini and sitting atop a mound of rice, is a cozy supper I can imagine sidling up to when a movie’s on the docket.

Bulgogi bowl,

The folks behind the scenes here could ratchet up the gochujang sauce, which I think most diners seeking Korean expect to have zing.

Bibambap, brought to the table by the counter crew in its hot stone pot, is crowned with a good dose of pork (you’ll get a choice of protein with this one) and a runny egg. Toss the meat, egg and vegetables well and try to see if you can get the rice on the bottom to catch enough heat from the stone pot to get a wisp of crust. I couldn’t.

Bibambap

Bulbap is what it is—so if you want authentic Korean, you’ll prefer the down-home spots in Palisades Park or Fort Lee or Edison. If you’re looking for Alt-Asian in a fast-casual format, follow the collegians, commuters and families to Bulbap Grill.

Bulbap Grill, 280 Route 9, Marlboro. Open daily for lunch and dinner. 732-617-1000; bulbapgrill.com.

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