Once upon a time, Buford Highway was the place to go for ethnic food and new culinary experiences. But, in the past five years, the quality of many standbys went downhill and new restaurants chose fresher — and further — locations to open, including Duluth, Tucker, and Suwanee. This migration was especially true when it came to Korean restaurants — namely those focused on barbecue. Even in Duluth, where Korean barbecue abounds, finding a restaurant that uses charcoal instead of propane is tough — the flavor imparted by coals is far superior. Not all Korean barbecue restaurants are created equal. Some serve a lesser product because there is now an expectation of value at Korean barbecue restaurants — a by-product of the all-you-can-eat trend that began around the time Duluth's Iron Age opened in 2010. But, for those of us searching for superior meat plus charcoal, 678's meat is hard to beat.
You'll know you've reached 678 by its unique, illuminated sign featuring a goofy-looking Korean guy holding a platter of meat and giving you a thumbs up. Who is this guy and why is his face all over the restaurant? He's Kang Ho-Dong, a famous entertainer from Korea and owner of the 678 franchise with locations in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Hawaii, and Manila. When I say his face is everywhere, I mean everywhere: on posters, anime-looking drawings on the walls, on the menu, and, most importantly, on the life-size cutout that greets you at the door. Snapping a photo with Ho-Dong is almost mandatory before leaving. Seating is limited, which means if you come during a dinner rush — on weekend nights in particular — there can be a lengthy wait. They do, however, take reservations, so make one and save yourself the torture of waiting as the smell of sizzling beef wafts toward your nose like those squiggly cartoon aroma lines. As the night wears on, the ventilation fans stop working as well as they should and things can get a little smoky. Not so smoky that it's unpleasant, but I wouldn't recommend bringing your small children. Best make this a parents' night out.
The space is bare-bones but in that cool, industrial way many modern Korean restaurants adhere to these days. You'll find lots of sleek wood, shiny poured-concrete floors, a huge screen playing an endless stream of colorful Korean pop videos, and cubbyhole booths set around charcoal grills that are slightly different from those to which you may be accustomed. There's a ravine set around each grill that holds a small portion of kimchi, while another section is filled with a scallion-studded raw egg mixture poured out of a large metal kettle by your server. As your meal progresses, the egg cooks and puffs up like an ethereal soufflé. It's fun to spoon out hot bites in between pieces of meat.
Speaking of meat, the menu can be a little overwhelming if you are ravenous and ready for instant gratification. One side is filled with numerous pork and beef options, some stews, soups, and a handful of drinks — weak beer and wine choices included. The other side lists choices such as an all-you-can-eat pork meal and combination dinners including beef and pork. If you go a la carte, be advised: The portions here are smaller than the Atlanta average by about 75 percent. It may seem building your order from scratch is a good way to go, but I've found the all-you-can-eat or combination options are your best bet and will save you money. The cost ($25.99 or $29.99) is only a little more expensive than one order of pork and you have the benefit of variety.
Whatever you decide, the meat is always tender and fresh-tasting — the spicy bean paste pork is a favorite — and the marinades are on point. You'll find the standard lettuce leaves and accoutrements for eating the meat wrap-style as well. If beef is on your mind, and you've got a group of three or more, the combination dinners (starting at $79.99) offer a huge assortment of cuts such as thinly sliced beef and marinated short ribs. The longer you linger, the more times your coals and grates are changed so everything is cooked evenly and tastes clean. The price of your meal includes a huge vat of spicy noodle soup served at the end of the meal to settle your stomach and knock out any remaining hunger you may think you still have. One of the key deciding factors on whether a KBBQ spot is worthy is its banchan (the various side dishes that come with your meal). At 678, the assortment is standard: sweet fish cake, broccoli in spicy sauce, pickled chunks of daikon radish, seasoned bean sprouts, cabbage kimchi, and that supremely vinegary, sesame-oil laced romaine lettuce and scallion salad. I could make a meal of that salad and gorgeous meat alone.
The only drawback to this exceptional KBBQ restaurant is that service can be a little hands-off once dinner gets started. There is, however, a push button to call a server over should you need more of anything. It is perhaps one of the best advancements in dining we owe to Korea and I suggest you use it freely. At these prices, you should get what you want.