I stood, horrified, in a tiny Bergenfield shack watching Robert Cho commit unspeakable crimes against two sacred foods: smoked barbecue and Korean fare. He picked up a huge brisket, blackened from half a day in a smoker, and hacked it to pieces. He carefully sawed a glazed doughnut in half and piled on the meat. Then came the cheese. And the bacon. And the kimchi — kimchi on a doughnut? Then, the crowning Fatboy Bourbon Chipotle Sauce.
Well, what do you know. One bite of that sloppy mess called Chonut 2.1 ($15) turned this skeptic into a believer. Cho deftly slow-smokes luscious beef and pork in the tradition of Texas barbecue, then elevates it with the spicy-sweet-tangy flavors at the heart of Korean cuisine. The wacky creations he’s cooking up at his Kimchi Smoke BBQ Shack turn out to be some of the most delicious and innovative carnivore fare in North Jersey.
Cho has been serving at festivals and pop-up restaurants around New Jersey and New York City for several years, winning several food contests along the way. But it wasn’t until a few months ago that he had a regular home: a mostly takeout spot with just a few seats that he mans with one or two employees.
His smoked meat alone would make the place a winner — and it is available for barbecue purists. His aromatic hickory-smoked pork shoulder ($18 for a pound) is eclipsed only by tender, smoky brisket smoked over oak ($24 for a pound); on Saturdays, he also offers baby-back ribs and beef short ribs.
Cho does not consider his fare fusion — he says it simply reflects how this Seoul-born, American-raised broker has always eaten.
“Growing up,” he says, “I would put kimchi on pizza or a hamburger.” Now, in a world where Korean flavors are becoming more common, Cho says he’s developing a diverse customer base, including some people who don’t know that kimchi is fermented cabbage.
Cho’s kimchi is particularly special. He takes the highly unusual step of smoking it just as he does his meat — and those two hours in hickory smoke makes the usually craggy cabbage silkier, elevates its sweetness and rounds out its spiciness. It gives crucial dimension to many of his dishes, starting with his Not Cho Mama Chili. That cheeky name and ingredient list — smoked meat, canned baked beans, juices from the brisket — make it sound like something a college student might concoct in a dorm room with barbecue leftovers. But, in fact, it has incredible depth of flavor and is worth the trip alone ($8, or as a topping on a number of dishes). A worthy accompaniment while you’re there: the Cholander fries, spice-rubbed double-fried french fries heaped with pulled pork, smoked kimchi, cheddar, smoky bourbon chipotle sauce and some crucial scallions that provided a cooling contrast ($12).
Cho’s signature Austin Cho sandwich ($13), piled with brisket and a zesty tar- tar-sauce-like rem- oulade, is an excellent choice on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when the Chonut is not offered — or for those who can’t take the richness of the doughnut sandwich. Those looking for simpler items should try the Korean Redneck Tacos with pork shoulder ($9), or the Rib-eye from the Korean Guy, a rice bowl made with the thinly cut, soy-marinated short ribs known as bulgogi ($15) — both are dressed up with a spicy slaw. As for the smoked Kimchili Ramen, I would recommend it only for those who eat it immediately in the shack — I dug in barely five minutes after it was handed to me and the noodles had already turned into glue ($13). But the chili topping was so tasty that I barely minded.