A little over one year ago, South Koreans were lining up by the thousands to protest – against their own government and against U.S. beef. Today, growing numbers of South Koreans are lining up for another reason: to get a taste of prime U.S. beef steaks at one of Seoul’s trendiest new restaurants, Goo STK 528.

Restaurant owner Ian Kim isn’t out to change the world, but he is convinced that South Koreans – particularly those who have traveled abroad and understand how delicious a well-prepared U.S. steak can taste – will flock to sample the menu at Goo STK 528 (Goo, which represents “mouth,” STK stands for “steak” and the restaurant’s street address, 528). He hasn’t been disappointed.

Kim, 45, who has enjoyed a varied career as an architect, in textiles, online gaming, information technology and working for the international arm of McDonald’s, made his decision to open STK 528 while the memories of last summer’s riots in Seoul were fresh. He unveiled the finished product – his first-ever venture into the restaurant business – in the spring of 2009 while friends and confidants urged him to change his mind.

“Everybody told me I was crazy,” Kim said. “But there is a market for U.S. beef here. There are a lot of people in Korea who used to live in the United States who are steak lovers.”
Kim designed the restaurant and the menu to suit his own tastes. He used his architectural skills to create an intimate and casual dining experience. The restaurant can seat a maximum of about 40 between indoor and outdoor tables, a secluded upstairs room with a table for four surrounded by Goo STK 528’s wine collection, and a bar that overlooks the main attraction: the grill where mostly prime U.S. beef steaks are grilled.

In fact, one local patron stood gazing at the grill as the chef loaded it with thick prime steaks for the dinner rush.

“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” she asked wistfully.

The menu is a truly a steak-lover’s delight. Currently, it features six entrees, one fish and five USDA prime beef: pan-seared chateaubriand, pan-seared fillet mignon, grilled rib-eye, grilled New York sirloin and grilled dry-aged rib-eye.

“I love steak,” said Kim. “I sell product that I love to eat, so I designed it to be a place I would want to go to – no tie, no jacket.”

And Kim doesn’t sell just any steak. He’s not satisfied with frozen, and he ended an experiment with high-end Australian steaks.

“I tried Aussie beef,” he said. “It has a grassy taste. It’s not the same as U.S. beef,” a taste he cultivated during five years of living in the United States and repeated trips back.

Another Kim experiment has turned in much more satisfying results. After nearly half a year of research and development, he has been offering his customers dry-aged U.S. steaks for the past several months. The response has been strong, with customers calling ahead, not just to reserve a table, but to reserve dry-aged steaks.

While Kim is cautious about accepting congratulations on his success after less than half a year of business, every seat in Goo STK 528 was reserved on the Thursday evening when this writer visited in early September. And business in August had been so good that Kim oversold his supply of chilled U.S. beef. In fact, on the evening of our visit, Kim provided drinks to buy time while a fresh supply of steaks was delivered to serve that night’s patrons.

The location, in a trendy Seoul neighborhood, has helped Kim attract a steady stream of customers ranging from young couples to corporate chairmen. While he plans to keep the original Goo STK 528 cozy, he is renting adjacent space for a meat locker and a larger dining area for meetings and special occasions.

In the coming year, Kim anticipates expanding his concept to a second Goo STK location in Seoul that he projects will be triple the size of the 528 establishment. And he’s not worried about the anti-U.S. beef sentiment that was so pervasive in the summer of 2008.

“No one has ever left my restaurant when they find out I only sell U.S. beef,” he said with a smile.