In 2007, Robert Austin Cho was a 36-year-old real estate broker, born in Seoul, living in Hackensack. One day, watching a contestant on Throwdown! With Bobby Flay smoke ribs over smoldering wood, he found his calling.
Growing up in Jersey, where he earned a Rutgers bachelor’s in business management in 1997, Cho had only seen people grill meat. Soon he was in Paramus’s Van Saun Park practicing on a mini-smoker. Within weeks, he won a barbecue cook-off at a local church.
After several years of performing well in competitions, festivals and pop-ups, Cho opened Kimchi Smoke in a shoebox of a space in Bergenfield in January 2016. Winning awards and social media shout-outs, he relocated last November to a simple, bright, fluorescent lit, 38-seat storefront in Westwood.
Fans can relax. Cho’s buttery brisket, signature Fatboy BCS (bourbon-chipotle sauce) and crunchy Asian slaw remain state-of-the-art. A good example is his juicy pork belly (tender yet lean), slathered with a tangy glaze made with Korean gochujang fermented spices and tucked into a pillowy brioche bun.
Cho, 45, has a knack for culinary mash-ups that verge on weird. Take his Reuben Lee, a Texas-Korea remake of a classic New York Reuben sandwich. Smoked brisket replaces corned beef. Fatboy BCS and remoulade replace (oft-insipid) Russian dressing. Smoked kimchi replaces deli cole slaw. The bread remains rye, but the slices are toasted and buttered, and the sandwich is better because of it.
Cho’s most audacious mash-up is the Chonut 2.1 (the menu aptly calls it “100% ridiculousness”). It has evolved since version 1.0, but is still served on a glazed doughnut, sometimes with sprinkles. Inside are piled smoked brisket, bacon, cheddar, smoked kimchi, Fatboy BCS and scallions. It has brought Cho awards and TV appearances, and earned at least one fan in my party: “Here is everything I like, in one pile,” said my husband. It is available only on Fridays and Saturdays.
For all his bumper-car proclivities, “I’m very big on my food not being called fusion,” Cho says. “As a Korean-American, I am 100 percent Korean and 100 percent American. Eating my food, people realize it is American-style barbecue, which is defined by slow smoking, as opposed to grilling. The menu has elements of Korean cuisine, such as kimchi, but it is not fusion cooking.”
His menu supports this thesis. Kimchi Smoke offers better-than-usual versions of roadhouse standards, such as mac and cheese, thickly sprinkled with cumin-fragrant dry rub for a crisp surface after baking. Cornbread is dense yet moist, with a toothsome graininess. On Saturdays, there are half and full racks of baby-back ribs and pork spare ribs.
On the other side of the ledger, kimchi is ubiquitous. Cho arrived in America with his parents when he was four. They brought kimchi with them everywhere they went. “I was a little embarrassed by it,” he admits. Nonetheless, in his solidly American-looking eatery, with its large map of the U.S.A., Cho offers two kinds of kimchi: traditional pickled cabbage and one that is also smoked in pans for two or three hours. The smoked kimchi is aged longer, becoming more pungent even as the smokiness intensifies the slaw’s sweet and spicy flavors.
Even vegetarians have good reason to cross Cho’s threshold. His rice bowls and soft flour tortillas are surprisingly satisfying without meat. Elevated to starring roles, the sauces and sides reveal more of their subtle flavors: the nutty flavor of sesame oil in the Asian slaw and the slow burn of the pungent Fatboy BCS.
As the move to larger quarters affirms, Cho is not just a pitmaster; he’s a chef.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:Barbecue - Korean - Southern
Price Details:Sandwiches, bowls, boxes, $8-$24; sides, $2-$7; desserts, $5-$7
Ambience:Cheerful, brightly lit storefront.
Service:Order at counter, food brought to table