402 Evans St, Williamsville, NY 14221
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Barbecue Korean Williamsville
"Woo Chon's service has for years been surprisingly spotty, with servers in our experience varying from fine to utterly indifferent to apparently lazy, even when the place is empty."
By the area's historic standards, and by current comparison with many other cities in the Eastern or Pacific time zones, Western New York seriously lacks for Korean food. There are places, particularly in California, where literally blocks and neighborhoods are nothing but Korean, their restaurants plentiful and yet packed, each specializing in a handful of dishes. Some may be dedicated to barbecued meats, others mostly to soft tofus or soups, and still others to nothing but desserts. We have visited these restaurants, and we have loved them. Everywhere else, Korean restaurants are generalists, serving mixed menus of meats, soups, stir-fried dishes and small plate snacks. That's the type of Korean restaurant we have in the suburbs of Buffalo, though the menus vary from Amherst's Arirang and Koreana to its Arirang, and Tonawanda's Seoul Garden to Woo Chon in Williamsville. Thanks to attrition, Woo Chon - also known as Korea House - is now the old dean of local Korean restaurants, and though its service has been seriously spotty for years, we've continued to visit because of the wide scope of the menu, and since the quality of its food was unquestionably impressive. When we first returned to town, we came back for a visit, ate kitchen-prepared dishes, and left disappointed. Updated July 31, 2008: On a subsequent visit, we opted for the far more expensive barbecued meats and had a better meal, but still weren't entirely satisfied.
The Story: There was a time years ago when we would have called Woo Chon the best Korean restaurant in Buffalo. These days, we'd be hesitant to say as much: our two most recent meals at this once impressive restaurant weren't nauseating, but on the first occasion, we found ourselves not wanting to finish either the appetizer or entree courses of three dishes that hadn't been prepared either properly or well. On the second occasion, we spent $50 for a meat entree that might have cost half that at some of our favorite Korean buffets outside of Buffalo.
In both cases, these items were accompanied by side dishes - a famous part of Korean dining that places small, included mini-plates full of chopped meats and small vegetables at your snacking disposal. We'd rate the side dishes as above average, but given the surprisingly high prices, there really should be more to the meals.
Highs: Woo Chon's Korean menu remains the area's strongest locally in terms of sheer scope, thanks mostly to the restaurant's division into two halves: one with three tabletop grilling surfaces, designed to let you cook your own meat dishes, and the other with plain tables. These grilling surfaces enable Woo Chon to offer everything from classic Bulgogi - strips of beef in soy sauce, garlic, and sugar marinade - to Dwaeji Bulgogi, which uses the same sauce with significant added spices, plus pork. All of the Korean barbecue goes for $23 and up, with beef ribs called Kalbi at $26, and a $46 combo that is alternately listed as having cow's tongue, Kalbi, chicken and pork, or Kalbi, chicken, pork, and scallops. When we ordered the combo on our second visit, it came with the scallops rather than the cow's tongue.
While the prices are high, having made steep jumps from $12 starting points years ago, these meats are hard to screw up on the grills; the only issue is whether you'll actually be grilling them. We'd be cautious of the barbecue items if they're prepared in the kitchen rather than at the grill tables; you generally won't be allowed to occupy a grill if they're occupied or you have too small of a party.
On both nights we visited, the restaurant was almost empty, so we had our choice of tables despite being in parties of two. For our second meal, we took a grill table and requested to cook ourselves, but had the cooking duties taken over for us by our server. All of the meat and scallops turned out pretty well, but the portions weren't big for the asking price; even alongside an appetizer of Mandu Gui ($6) fried dumplings and two sets of side dishes, we still felt hungry when the meal was over.
Woo Chon is also a fine place to try kimchee, the overly reviled side dish of spicy chilled and fermented cabbage. It was one of several included side dishes that were both authentic and good; it comes with virtually every meal, the presentation straightforward and the flavor appropriate, if not deep. Other dishes, including the classic Japchae ($13), bean thread noodles fried with vegetables and beef, the spicy cold noodle dish Bibim-nang myun ($12, extra noodles $6), and Ohjinga Bokum ($14), offering sliced squid and vegetables in a spicy sauce, are also available. Those who have issues with Korean dishes can try Japanese options such as $13 Teriyakis of chicken, beef, salmon, shrimp, plus the fried cutlet dish Tonkatsu, known here as Don Katsu ($13).
Lows: Korean chicken dishes may be some of the world's best, and to say that the spicy ones would appeal to even otherwise unfamiliar Buffalonian diners would be an understatement. Unfortunately, Woo Chon's renditions of two of the best such dishes - Kan Poongki ($15), a "chef's specialty" fried chicken in special sauce, typically served sweet and saucy, and a $5 hot fried chicken appetizer typically served spicy and dry - came out of the kitchen identical to one another, neither one close to correct. Bibim Bap, a Korean classic consisting of stone-cooked white rice, vegetables, spicy gochu jang paste and beef, was plain and lifeless, with almost no meat.
As a final note, Woo Chon's service has for years been surprisingly spotty, with servers in our experience varying from fine to utterly indifferent to apparently lazy, even when the place is otherwise empty. Your experience will vary depending on when you visit, but unfortunately we wound up with some of the weak service on our first referenced visit; it was better on our return second visit. Paying the bill for the first meal, pricey and served without friendliness, was unpleasant, accentuating the bad taste already left in our mouths.
The Verdict: Arirang aside, Woo Chon is the only local place you'll be able to find Korean barbecue, but you'll pay very steep prices for an experience that in our view isn't up to snuff with good places outside of this area. We're huge fans of Korean food, but even with very limited options in the area, we consider a return visit a toss-up. As it remains the Korean community's most conspicuous venue to experience Seoul foods and culture, the Korea House would do everyone a favor by improving its service, its kitchen entrees, and prices to levels that would encourage repeat visitors.