First Bite: New Korean Restaurant in the Houston Heights Inspires Confidence
Delicious Concept’s newest… delicious concept is here. Located at 602 Studewood, Mapojeong Galbijib is the company’s third restaurant at this location, previously held by Ritual and The El. Although Delicious Concepts is still remodeling the space, Mapojeong is already up and running as an upscale Korean barbecue restaurant with an emphasis on serving high-quality proteins. Houston Food Finder was invited to a preview dinner.
Of Korean descent himself, this is owner Ken Bridge’s second attempt at a Korean restaurant. Republic Diner + Sojubang, which closed in 2018 to become Blackbird Izakaya, featured pub-style food with Korean flair such as Korean Fried Chicken and bulgogi French Fries, as well as a fondly remembered kimchi and egg-loaded KO Burger. Mapojeong offers an almost entirely new menu with only a few returning, slightly updated items such Japchae (a stir-fried glass noodle dish) and kimchi fried rice. Also returning from Republic Diner is Ken Bridge’s mother traveling from table to table, greeting and assisting guests.
The primary focus of Mapojeong is the use of tabletop grilling. At many of Houston’s Korean barbecue restaurants it is common to see large portions of meat, and sometimes even all-you-can-eat options. Instead of big portions and countless selections, Mapojeong offers fewer than 10 choices in a focus on quality over quantity. Higher-grade meats include A5 Wagyu, two versions of galbi (ribs), New York strip, marinated chicken and pork belly. While the high-quality meat pays off in terms of tenderness and natural flavor, the marinades for the proteins (and seasoning for many of the plates) are so subtle as to not add much.
As with most Korean barbecue set-ups, the grilled meats come with several small dishes known as banchan. Along with kimchi, pickled cucumbers and fish cake, the restaurant serves cheesy corn, mixed vegetables and eggs that cook in compartments on the sides of the grill.
With the exception of a few upscale spots, Korean barbecue is a cook-it-yourself adventure. (It’s like going out for crawfish; the fun is in the interactivity.) Guests are welcome to grill for themselves if they’d like — or not. Mapojeong utilizes fairly small grills, and trains the restaurant staff to cook for the guests while guiding them through the meal.
Mapojeong’s prime, standalone location in the Heights, as well as the types of meats it serves and high level of service, should be taken into consideration when looking at prices. The protein options start at around $30, with most in the $35 to $40 range. Also, on the topic of payment, Mapojeong uses the Roovy app (also owned by Bridge) for all of its transactions. This requires diners who pay via credit card to download the app and complete the transaction from their phone.
During the preview dinner our server LeAir, who is also the staff trainer, engaged us not only in the cooking process, but in an entertaining conversation.
In addition to the Japchae and kimchi fried rice, Mapjeong offers several pre-cooked shared plates (that may eclipse the barbecue), including two types of scallion pancakes, kimchijeon and Haemuljeon with bites of fresh seafood in every forkful. Other plates include Korean fried chicken bite tossed in a slightly spicy gochujang sauce, beef mandu (or dumplings), and a personal favorite bulgogi Tteokbokki. While the rice cake dish is commonly served in a spicy red sauce, the restaurant went mild and savory with a style similar to that of Royal Ttoekbokki.
One aspect of Mapojeong that separates the restaurant from other Korean barbecue shops is its bar program, designed by Peter Clifton of Ready Room. Mapojeong really stands out in its soju-based cocktail program, with choices like a soju cosmo, Mapo old-fashioned an Asian pear martini, and the green tea soju, which is a delicate and creamy combination that makes the cocktail easy to pound. Overall, each of the mixed drinks is well-balanced mirroring the classics that inspired them, while creating new twists. In addition, there is a basic selection of hard liquors, and a small selection of wine available by the glass or bottle. The bar also has a few Japanese beers along with two Korean brands, Terra and Hite.
In the end, Mapojeong inspires confidence. While several of Delicious Concepts’ prior ideas, such as Tres Amigos and The El, might have missed certain marks, Mapojeong succeeds in nearly everything it does. This rings especially true when it comes to the shared plates, drinks and enjoyable atmosphere.
Mapojeong is currently open Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. and closed on Mondays. The restaurant has been busy since opening, and reservations are highly recommended. You can make them online.