Bringing ethnic cuisine to the general American population while maintaining authenticity is a tricky balancing act: levels of spiciness often have to be brought down a notch, sweetness increased a touch, and the food marketed in a familiar way. A certain finesse is required to ease the Western palate into unfamiliar tastes while creating a comfortable restaurant vibe. Bibigo, a fast-casual chain seeking to make authentic Korean food more accessible to the American public, makes this introduction rather successfully by centralizing on bibimbap, a classic Korean dish of rice, vegetables, and protein. It’s foreign enough to be unfamiliar to many Americans yet approachable enough to not be outside their comfort zones.
Appeasing the American need for options, Bibigo’s bibimbap is customizable with three types of rice, four sauce options, and either beef, pork, or chicken. Spoiler alert: resulting combinations will more than likely not be loyal to traditional Korean fare.
The build-your-own trend began most noticeably with sandwiches, and then moved to burritos and salads. Now, however, the bug has spread to everything from pizzas to ramen and is nearly to the point where it’s a standard to be expected across fast-casual joints. It’s a world where the customer is ALWAYS right, even when Indian curry is heaped atop chilled noodles and topped with pickles at the Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen down the street.
While Bibigo is unfortunately following Shophouse’s suit (celery will soon be a vegetable option for assembly-line bowls), it does set itself apart with the memorable hot stone presentation of its entrees. Bibimbap will sizzle and the spicy pork platter will bubble as they arrive at your table with chopsticks and a spoon for mixing. The hands-on experience is fun but not gimmicky, and is distinctive enough to possibly secure return customers.
The strongest menu option here is also the most authentic: a hot stone bibimbap with bulgogi beef and kohot – a red chili paste-based sauce that closely resembles the gochujang which accompanies traditional bibimbap. The meat is well-marinated in a garlic and soy sauce mix and manages to arrive at your table still sizzling but not overcooked. Black pearl rice is a tasty alternative to its traditional white counterpart, and the vegetables are well-steamed. Sure, the rice may not get crispy like the Koreatown versions, but it’s a surprisingly well-executed and flavorful dish for casual dining.
Unfortunately, most other menu options – including other bibimbap combinations – don’t exceed the industry standard of bland and boring fast casual chain restaurants. The kimchi stew is watery and lacking in the depth and savor that comes from the hint of garlic and soy sauce in typical recipes. Fried rice is dull despite attempts to dress it up with seaweed and an overcooked egg. Chicken is underseasoned, and the tofu lives up to its unsavory reputation.
As can be gleaned from its title, the ‘Tapas’ section of the menu is a muddling of cuisines. Spicy pork can be found nestled in stale Chinese bao, and overly-fried “wontons” containing cilantro and chicken are served with Vietnamese-style nuoc mam. There’s a sense that this appetizer section of the menu was an afterthought among corporate executives and needs a serious reworking.
It’s a worthwhile endeavor that Bibigo takes on, but at the end of the day it lacks an authenticity that would set it apart from the sea of chains that earn your dollar only when you need a quick bite to eat. Taste still trumps convenience, and Bibigo won’t be stealing any business from Koreatown restaurants, even among Westsiders.