Have you ever wondered how to eat keto at a Korean barbecue restaurant? In this post I’ll share what are the best (and worst) foods to eat at a Korean BBQ restaurant, where to look for hidden carbs, and tips to make your night out keto friendly.
The best keto Korean BBQ choices are plain meats and seafood prepared without marinade. Pork belly, beef brisket, shrimp, rib eye, short ribs, pork neck, sirloin, chicken, etc. Safe side dishes (or banchan) are kimchi, toasted seaweed, bean sprouts, rolled omelette strips, seasoned kale or spinach, broth-based soups without noodles. Feel free to enjoy the delicious sesame oil & salt dipping sauce!
Use caution with marinated meats like bulgogi and galbi, because marinades can be loaded with sugar, honey, or fruit juice. Sauces like gochujang can have more than 10g carbs for a one tablespoon serving. Beware of obvious high carb choices like noodles, dumplings, and rice, or anything labeled “sweet.”
Nutritional information is really tricky to find, and it depends on each restaurant’s recipe and your portion size. This post shares common sense tips to enjoy a delicious night out at a Korean barbecue.
In this post you will find:
Three strategies you can use when dealing with any restaurant on a keto diet.
How to find hidden sources of sugars and carbs at a Korean barbecue restaurant.
Keto “red light” foods - what not to eat.
Keto “caution” foods - be sure these choices are low carb.
Keto “green light” foods - enjoy these at your Korean BBQ restaurant!
Go in with a plan: 3 ways to approach your Korean BBQ restaurant meal.
Usually it’s not a complete surprise when we go out to eat, right? So there are three ways to approach your meal. Choose what works best for YOU. I always have a plan in mind before I set food inside a restaurant.
1. Eat straight up keto.
This means you will eat a high fat, low carb, moderate protein meal. You know, like you do most of the time at home.
2. Eat a keto meal, but have a few bites of higher carb foods you really want.
If you can control yourself around carbs, it’s ok to plan a keto meal but have a small portion of rice, or the super delicious bulgogi with it’s sweet marinade.
A few bites of delicious high carb foods shouldn’t throw you out of ketosis, and your daily macros may still be spot on. But if you can’t stop at just a few bites, this strategy may not be for you.
3. Have a carb up meal.
Do you really, really want to go all in on the bulgogi or galbi? Maybe you just want to enjoy your grilled-at-the-table meats over the perfectly cooked rice. Or not worry about hidden sugars in all the delicious side dishes or sauces that come with your meal.
If so, consider a carb up.
Carb ups are a good strategy to enjoy carbs on occasion, once you are fat adapted. Carb ups keep your body guessing, and help balance hormones. and can help with muscle growth.
PS, carb up is another way to say “treat meal.” It will likely kick you out of ketosis, but only for a day or so.
What is Korean BBQ?
The first time I went to a Korean barbecue restaurant I wasn’t sure what to expect, so here’s a little primer if you haven’t been.
Order for the table.
You’ll be seated at a table with a gas or charcoal grill in the center. You then order a selection of meats to be grilled from off the menu.
Unlike with traditional restaurants, you are ordering for the table so it makes for fun discussion as to what meats to try. We usually order a platter that contains beef brisket, thin sliced seasoned beef rib eye, pork belly, and beef bulgogi.
Mmmmm banchan - your Korean side dishes.
Before the (raw) meat arrives, you may be served a salad (family style in a big bowl) and an assortment of banchan, or small dishes of side items. The banchan are shared among everyone at the table. Unless you’re familiar with Asian cuisine (like I was not) you may not know what all of the cute little dishes are filled with. If your server doesn’t name them, feel free to ask. One of the reasons I take a "few bites of carbs” or “carb up” approach at a Korean restaurant is that I love to try new things and I don’t want to worry about every tiny ingredient.
Even though the banchan come in tiny dishes, don’t be afraid to eat up and ask for more. You always have free banchan refills with your meal.
You’ll also be served a bowl of rice which you can use with the banchan or the delicious meats you will grill yourself. (Or skip the rice altogether if doing a strict keto approach.) And a platter of lettuce leaves to use for lettuce wraps (yay keto!) and a little plate of some raw veggie “condiments” like garlic and jalapeno pepper. Oh, and one of my favorite things is a little plate of dipping sauces for each person. The sesame oil and salt sauce is not only keto, but super delicious!
It’s all about the meat. Channel your inner grill master.
The meats (and/or seafood) you ordered will arrive arranged beautifully on a platter. Your server will guide you with cooking instructions (which meats to cook first, when to flip, how to know they are done), and sometimes they will even do most of the cooking and flipping for you.
While you are grilling the meats you can enjoy the banchan with or without rice, lots of great conversation, and the amazing aroma of sizzling meats. Korean BBQ restaurants are not cheap, but it is a nice relaxing night out.
Whether or not you or the servers are doing most of the grilling, they will use kitchen scissors to cut up large pieces of meat (like steak, pork belly) into bite sized pieces for you. Then enjoy! Dip the meats into the sauces, pop on a lettuce leaf with veggies and enjoy a perfectly keto bite. Or eat with a small amount of rice and the banchan.
Korean barbecue restaurants have prepared meals you can order right off the menu, but this article is specifically about the Korean BBQ you cook yourself at the table.
Where to find hidden carbs at a Korean BBQ restaurant.
Obvious high carb culprits are rice, noodles, dumplings, spring rolls, anything battered.
But there are three main sources of hidden carbs at Korean BBQ restaurants:
Marinades used on meats;
Sugars used in side dishes to cut the heat or add sweetness.
Many cuts of meat are marinated before grilling at the Korean BBQ restaurant.
These popular Korean barbecue meats are coated in marinade before cooking:
beef bulgogi (thin sliced boneless rib eye steak or other cut of beef)
daeji bulgogi (pork marinated in a red chili paste sauce)
dak bulgogi (chicken)
Galbi (marinated beef short ribs)
dwaeji galbi (pork shoulder)
Korean fried chicken wings (most have a glaze or are seasoned with a rub)
If you want to eat strictly keto, don’t order these items. Or, fill up on the plain (yet still amazingly delicious) meats, and just have a few bites of marinated barbecue.
What NOT to eat at a Korean BBQ restaurant when you’re following a ketogenic diet.
These foods are best avoided at a Korean barbecue restaurant unless you have just a bite or two, or it is part of a planned carb up.
Don’t eat these Korean BBQ main dishes if you want to eat keto.
Korean fried chicken (often breaded and glazed)
Gochujang (Korean chili sauce) which may have 6g to 20g carbs per one tablespoon
Watch for foods described as “crispy,” “sweet,” “fried” or “battered.”
Marinated meats like bulgogi and galbi
Stay away from these Korean BBQ sides.
One of my favorite parts of dining at a Korean barbecue restaurant are all the banchan, or little side dishes that come with your meal. Typically you’ll have about six or more, and the sides may change based on the season. I love that it means more interesting dishes to try!
You may not always know what is in the sides so if you are being keto purist use caution. Try a bite. Does it taste sweet? If so, you may want to pass.
Avoid these side dishes:
glazed baby potatoes (gamja jorim)
candied lotus root (yeongeun-jeonggwa)
Korean potato salad (gamja saelleodeu)
braised potatoes (gamja jorim or goguma mattang)
vegetable pancakes (jeon)
Korean potato latkes (gamja jeon)
sweet black beans (kongjaban)
Be a carb detective … these Korean BBQ restaurant foods may not be keto.
It’s a little tricky to be a carb detective in a Korean restaurant, unlike some other restaurants. I have yet to find any restaurant’s nutritional information online. But I did look at some traditional Korean recipes to take a peek at the ingredients. And, as with everything, carb counts depend on the particular recipe used and your portion size.
Definitely use caution with marinated meats - like bulgogi and galbi - because marinades can be loaded with sugar, honey, or fruit juice. The marinades help make the meat tender, delicious, and gives it beautiful caramelization while cooking. Sometimes wheat or starch are used in marinades to help the sauce stick to the meat.
Sauces like gochujang can have more than 10g carbs for a one tablespoon serving. Beware of obvious high carb choices like noodles, and rice, or anything labeled “sweet.”
If you want to stay strictly keto, avoid or limit portion sizes of these possibly carb-heavy foods:
bulgogi (thin slices of premium cuts of beef like boneless rib eye, prime rib or sirloin which are marinated with a mixture of soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil, and sugar)
dak bulgogi (marinated chicken breast)
dwaeji bulgogii - pork shoulder with red sauce and chili paste marinade
galbi (barbecue beef short ribs with marinade that has added sugar)
daweji galbi (marinated pork shoulder)
Gochujang sauce (if you’re using more than a small amount)
anything that says "sweet" or even "spicy" that might be tempered with sugar
fish cakes may contain honey or may be glazed.
The best keto Korean BBQ choices are meats and seafood prepared without marinade. Pork belly, beef brisket, shrimp, rib eye, short ribs, pork neck, sirloin, chicken, etc. Safe side dishes (or banchan) are kimchi, toasted seaweed, bean sprouts, rolled egg omelet, seasoned spinach or kale, and broth-based soups without noodles, dumplings, or rice. Feel free to enjoy the delicious sesame oil & salt dipping sauce!
Best keto-friendly foods to eat at a Korean barbecue restaurant.
Keto-friendly meats and seafood:
Any meat or seafood plain, with no marinade:
pork belly (sam gyup sal)
beef brisket (chadol)
short ribs (saeng-galbi)
beef tongue (hyue mit gui)
prime rib (galbi kotsal)
Also enjoy meat or seafood in marinades that do not contain added sweeteners, like jumuluk (sliced beef rib eye seasoned and marinated in sesame oil and garlic).
Keto-friendly side dishes and sauces at Korean BBQ restaurants:
Veggies, salads and soups:
salad (though dressings may have some sugar)
the super delicious sesame oil and salt dipping sauce
fresh veggies that often are served to use with lettuce wraps like jalapeno, raw garlic, etc.
veggies served without sauce or that are seasoned with oils, like broccoli with sesame oil)
kimchi jjigae (pork kimchi stew)
soups that are broth based and without rice or noodles, like twoenjangguk (a soup made with fermented soybean paste and baby clams) or shinsollo (a hot pot of meat, fish, vegetables and tofu)
Banchan (Korean side dishes):
One last note of caution… unless you see the actual recipe there may be sweeteners added, but generally these are keto friendly:
eggplant (gaji namul)
steamed eggs with salted shrimp and green onions (gyeran-jjim)
fish cakes, though some might be glazed (eomuk bokkeum)
soybean sprouts, sometimes seasoned with sesame, soy, green onions and garlic (kongnamul)
cucumber salad (oi muchim)
radish or cucumber kimchi
rolled egg omelets
seaweed, toasted, braised or roasted
pickled veggies like radishes, cucumber, garlic, or carrot (may contain sugar)
hard boiled eggs braised in soy sauce (dalgyal jorim)
kale or spinach namul (seasoned with soy, garlic, and sesame oil)
I hope you found this guide helpful in your quest to eat keto at a Korean barbecue restaurant. Oh, and don’t forget to invite me!!
Happy keto eating!
—The Keto Minimalist
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