A disclaimer: I know very little about Korean food.
But I do know that I fell in love when I first tried bulgogi at one of the Ko-Mart food stalls. The thin slices of beef hinted at BIG flavors -- the umami of soy, the sweetness of sugar, the heat of peppers, and the bite of raw garlic and green onion. I loved those flavors. I wanted more.
Yet every bulgogi dish I have tried since then seems to have less. Most bulgogi dishes have little or no heat and much less of the other flavoring ingredients.
When it comes to bulgogi, I am the Ugly American. I want more flavor. If authentic Korean bulgogi is about subtlety, I don't get it.
Korea Garden lunch
As an illustration, some friends and I recently tried the lunch specials at Korea Garden on Long Point. We ordered bulgogi, spicy pork bulgogi, and bulgalbi (a similar dish made with short ribs instead of sirloin).
The sides were fantastic. Tempura vegetables had a delicate, crispy bite. The kimchi was appropriately old, spicy, and funky. And I particularly liked a side of some unusual, sweet vegetables. I had the sense that Korea Garden would be even better at night, when you can cook at your table, and they bring more sides.
But of the three meat dishes, the only one with the BIG flavors was the spicy pork bulgogi. Its flavor was mostly spice, not the wonderfully strange sweetness I like in a bulgogi marinade. The other two dishes had no heat and only a little sweetness. I did not find that bulgogi flavor explosion that I have been seeking.
The bulgogi burger at home
On Monday, my wife brought home some buffalo burger paties. Surely she knew that I am not a fan of ordinary burgers. Surely she knew that I would turn them into something goofy.
As I opened the refrigerator, trying to decide what to do with the burger, I saw a jar of kimchi. The mission became clear.
First, I chopped up the spicy kimchi, and then added even more chili paste. I incorporated the spicy goodness into the meat. Then, as the meat grilled, I threw together a "bulgogi" sauce of soy, mirin, sugar, crushed garlic, and green onions.
As I first bit into the the kimchi burger covered in bulgogi sauce, I knew I had found it -- that explosion of Korean flavors that I had been missing,
Sure, my "bulgogi" burger is no more authentic Korean food than a pizza burger is authentic Italian food.
But sometimes authenticity doesn't matter when you need a lot of flavor.