Japan Today

Costco Japan’s bulgogi bake is a melting pot of deliciousness

By Casey Baseel

For the most part, grocery shopping in the Tokyo area is a small-scale affair. The majority of shoppers go to the store on foot and carry their purchases home, meaning that each residential neighborhood has a number of small markets to ensure consumers don’t have to lug their bags more than a few blocks.

However, with a little over 15 years’ experience since opening its first store in Japan, mega retailer Costco has converted a number of the locals to its “bigger is better” philosophy. As you’d expect, Costco gives customers in Japan the chance to save by buying in large quantities, and also serves up hot meals in its food court, just like in other countries.

One thing that’s different about the food court at Costco in Japan, though, is the menu, which includes a Korean fusion item called the bulgogi bake.

Once we heard about the mysterious bulgogi bake, we knew we needed to try it. Since we also needed a 20-pack of paper towels, we piled into our car and cruised down to our nearest Costco in Tokyo’s neighbor to the south, the city of Kawasaki.

In keeping with the chain’s standard business practices, entering the store requires a membership, which runs 4,000 yen per year. We’ve been told our card, which was issued in Japan, will also grant us access to Costcos overseas, so we see no reason to think the reverse doesn’t apply as well.

Arriving at the Kawasaki Costco feels a lot like arriving at a Costco anywhere else. There’s a gigantic parking lot, attendant at the entrance checking membership cards, and everywhere you look, people are buying pallets of bottled water.

From standing at certain points in the store, you’d swear you were in Seattle instead of Kanagawa Prefecture. Rotisserie chicken? Check. Giant packs of muffins and cookies? Check.

But then you start coming across things that hammer home you’re in Japan -- full of takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and grilled rice balls.

Eventually, you start to feel like you’re warping between continents, as rows alternate between Costco’s proprietary Kirkland-brand snacks and decidedly more Japanese fare.

Sometimes, you can witness the gastronomic melting pot without taking a single step. For example, a glance to one side of the drink aisle reveals crates of Coca-Cola….and directly across from it, you’ll find boxes of bottled green tea.

But while we found plenty of tempting stuff to stick in our cart and take home, we were hungry now. So we sauntered over to the food court, where a glance up at the menu board revealed what we had come for: the bulgogi bake.

For the uninitiated, bulgogi is a type of Korean grilled beef dish. The meat is usually marinated with soy and other spices, and often mixed with things such as green onion or mushrooms.

Authentic bulgogi is grilled, but Costco’s creation is cooked in an oven, hence the name bulgogi bake. As you’d expect from the superstore, the bulgogi bake is reasonably priced at 400 yen, and large enough to be a meal all by itself.

Even after unwrapping the foil surrounding the bulgogi bake and looking at it close up, we’re not sure exactly how to classify it. It’s shaped like a subway sandwich, but it’s completely enclosed. Moreover, the outer portion isn’t ordinary bread, it’s pizza crust, making it feel like an oblong calzone.

The Italian food connection became even stronger when we examined the filling, which consists of beef, green onion, and, to our surprise, melted cheese.

All this time spent trying to puzzle out the bulgogi bake’s true nationality wasn’t doing anything to appease our appetites, though, so it was time to find out how it tasted. We bit into it, and the first sensation was of the soft, doughy crust, with just a little bit of flour left dusted on the surface.

Once you break through the outer layer, the cheese hits your palate. The flavor is mild, without even a hint of sourness, meaning the bulgogi bake can appeal even to people who ordinarily can’t stand the idea of eating coagulated milk. Likewise, the green onion isn’t overpowering, either. We’re not saying we’d recommend eating the bulgogi bake in the afternoon before your first date with someone, but if you’re already in a steady relationship, the smell it leaves on your breath isn’t anything that would put you in danger of getting dumped.

We’re not going to lie, the meat is on the tough side, enough so that it can be a little difficult to cut through with your canines, occasionally leading to ending up with a bigger piece in your mouth than you’d intended. That said, the level of quality is perfectly acceptable for a 400-yen food court meal, especially considering the generous portion of it present in the bulgogi bake. And while we’d like the beef even more if it was a little tenderer, we’ve got no complaints about the marinade that gives it a pleasant sweetness. It’s a bit like the flavor of a Japanese-style beef bowl, and it goes great with the warm, melty cheese.

So, while we can’t call the bulgogi bake an honest example of traditional Korean cooking, we can say we’d definitely order it again. We especially recommend it for those of you on the fence about whether to have pizza or a beef bowl for dinner, or who want to dive head-first into internationalism by eating an Italian remix of a Korean delicacy at the Japanese branch of an American warehouse retailer.

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- 10 crazy pizzas from Japan -- 10 things Japan gets awesomely right -- Simple and Delicious Recipe for Herring and Pumpkin Pot Pie as Seen in Kiki’s Delivery Service

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Oh, cleo, once again, here we go with the over exaggerations again. You just cannot have a good day unless you can attack anything that's American

Where do you see an attack? I point out that it was way better than I'd been led to expect from descriptions on JT, that there's lots of good stuff and it's a money-saver. Did you forget to take your anti-paranoid pills again this morning?

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Earlier descriptions on JT about costco - giant packs of American staples and plastic cheese - put me right off and I never thought I'd have reason to go. Then one opened near my daughter and she dragged me along one day. It was an eyeopener. Yes there are the giant packs of chips and fried corn snackkie things that will feed an army, and huge blocks of plastic cheese. But I also found things like oatmeal, coffee, pasta, nuts and genuine aged Italian parmesan at a fraction of the price they charge in my local supermarket. Not everything is a bargain, granted - it's easy to get carried away by the atmosphere - and you have to buy huge amounts of stuff, but choose stuff that you'd buy anyway, that's non-perishable or that can be frozen/vacuum packed, and it's a real money-saver.

I won't be trying any bulgogi any time soon (at least not until they come up with a veggie version), but next time I might be tempted to have a peek in the food court.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Just coffee alone saves me a ton of money each year. I calculated that grinding my own Kirkland Starbucks coffee ends up costing me about 1/3 of normal retail costs. Of course their return policy is also a plus, if you ever need to return something, which I've had to do only once due to my changing my mind about needing a particular item, not because of it's quality. Some items, like special cheeses for fondue (if they happen to be in stock) are much much cheaper than elsewhere; and elsewhere can sometimes be quite difficult to find. All in all, it's worth the membership cost. By the way, I'm from Seattle.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Why on earth would someone take offence at hearing people say they don't want to go to a massive, crowded, noisy supermarket to buy huge quantities of food they don't really need but which they have sentimental / sugar cravings for?

I don't want to go to Costco, although I know lots of people who do. Good for them. I have nothing bitchy to say to them! Why would I, they seem happy.

I wouldn't eat the bulgogi pie thing either - whiskers and noses, no doubt.

But if I did go, and then had something good to say about it, I would be astounded of the childish behaviour of anyone who took personally my negative feedback of a shop instead of sharing my good impressions of it.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Costco is the best! I have seen many big Japanese retailers (Livin, Seiyu, Aeon, etc) quality of fruits and veggies increase and prices lowered since Costco came on the scene. I may be wrong but I think it's a direct result of competition from Costco. The bulgogi bake isn't great but it's good and it's served hot and fresh and the price is right.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

If you have a family or are planning a party, Costco is great. If you don't live near one or live in central Tokyo and don't have a car or just can't be bothered to fight the crowds - check out Yoyo Market: http://yoyomarket.jp/ Pay a bit extra for the convenience but saves a lot of time / hassle.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

It might be interesting to go to costco once in a while but it's definitely not a money-saver for me. The last time I went there, I bought a few things that lasted two years. The savings were minimal compared to the local shops and it definitely isn't worth 8000 yen in membership fees & transportation costs.

I did have a bulgogi bake and it was okay.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It depends on what you buy. The amount of money I save buying cottage cheese alone over a year easily covers the membership fees and then some.

I love the bulgogi bake. Delicious.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Costco does save me money, but I am also able to buy some products that are just too difficult to get anywhere else. I love the tortilla shells I can get there, for example. My only problem is that their location is a bit far away, so it's a bit of a trip for me.

I think the author gave a fairly accurate description of the bulgoki bake. Tasty, but tough to chew the beef. Fairly large, as well. I can eat a whole one, but then I'm pretty stuffed afterwards. It's better if I can share it with someone else. I don't have a big appetite though, so I would say for a normal person it's probably just right. I can't say that I'm a big fan of their pizza, though. It's okay, I guess, and the price is very reasonable.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Tastes a lot like a philly cheesesteak. For 400 yen, that's a winner in my books.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Actually, it tastes really good, IMO. First time I had it, was 10 years ago when I was living in Seoul and I was shopping at Costco. I always ate the Chicken bake in Japan and the states, but was very surprised to se Bulgolgi bake at Costco, Seoul. Tried it, liked it so much, ate another. 2 years later, they started selling them in Japan, they were good in the beginning, but taste changed a bit. I think it has a lot to do with the meat, I'm not quite sure, but it was more savory, lot s of garlic, onions, packed to the brim, bu the Japanese version falls a bit flat. They put a lot less meat and use more bread. Oh, cleo, once again, here we go with the over exaggerations again. You just cannot have a good day unless you can attack anything that's American. It's too funny actually.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

It seems like you were going in with the usual preconceived notion of attacking the US.

Yes, that's why I waxed lyrical about why I liked it....

This time it's food and it is primarily made of plastic.

Primarily? Only if plastic cheddar is a staple in your diet. That's how it was described to me. While I can understand expats (of any nationality) getting excited about being able to buy big packs of stuff that reminds them of their childhood, it's not as appealing to folk who grew up elsewhere. Saying I'm not interested in paying an annual member's fee for the privilege of buying huge amounts of stuff I don't want isn't an 'attack'. If I say I'm not interested in buying huge packets of sembei, or I'm not interested in eating natto every day for breakfast, would you take it as an 'attack' on Japan? (Yes, I know there are some right-wing nationalistic nutters who would...)

Note that it was mainly Americans describing Costco in Japan who put me off. Maybe if they'd said nothing, or mentioned stuff other than semi-processed cheese and snacks (I think huge packs of meat were given as another attraction, not something I want) I would have gone earlier. If I'd known about the oatmeal, coffee and parmesan, definitely.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

It will be VERY interesting to see if Costco will offer this at their Los Angeles-area warehouses, given the large Korean expatriate community living in the Los Angeles area.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It will be VERY interesting to see if Costco will offer this at their Los Angeles-area warehouses, given the large Korean expatriate community living in the Los Angeles area.

They've been offering them on and off for at least a decade here in Japan, so if they haven't already offered them in LA, it's not so likely that they will. Not impossible of course.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If someone thinks Costco pizza is "awesome," they must have had a tastebudectomy.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I tried the bulgogi bake last weekend. It is a mass-produced unhealthy, fattening hunk of "food" that resembles the frozen dinner pockets found in the freezers of the discount grocery stores found all over North America.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

R U kidding? It tastes terrible!

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

giant packs of American staples and plastic cheese - put me right off and I never thought I'd have reason to go.

It seems like you were going in with the usual preconceived notion of attacking the US. This time it's food and it is primarily made of plastic. Yes, you finally opened your mind and have seen first hand Costco carries a variety of foods and the choices huge ( not just the family size ) and NO, I don't take pills, except when I go to the gym. :-)

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

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