Touted as the place that best reflects the Korean approach to food, this modest eating place is all about the food rather than surrounds.
That's not to say that the ambience was lacking- quite the contrary. Part of its appeal lies in not trying too hard- grungy grey walls littered with the individual scrawls of past patrons, in-house entertainment via a projector screen showing Korean music videos, the faded din of the corresponding pop song in the background all conspire to produce a certain 'underground' feel that the cliché 'tucked away location' usually brings to mind.
And indeed this is a place deserving of that urban vibe, opening until 2am on Friday nights. Did I mention they sold soju? 'Korean vodka' as recognised by some, this alcoholic drink knocks the socks off even the toughest drinkers. Served chilled straight from the ice-box, one shot of this bitter and dry poison would send minty shivers down your spines. But all is not lost for soju-virgins. As I found out, the second experience with this vodka isn't as hair-raising as the first, it not only become tolerable, but even an enjoyable drink to be putting back with the mates. Order one bottle between two, or a bottle each and consume alongside the meal to make for greater enjoyment and those odd moments of hilarity best forgotten about the morning after. Drinkers out there, you know what I'm talking about.
Nevertheless its also easy to forge greater bonding with meal companions sans soju. A couple of hours of barbecuing pork belly, ox tongue and pig intestines (cooked first, but eaten last for that crisped/burnt quality- the Korean way) upon the conical ceramic grill in front of you makes ample time for getting to know each other. Add that to the fact that each table is curiously small, its space largely taken up by the barbecue and voilà, we have a place for intimate conversation over food. You'd even leave the restaurant smelling like barbecued meat of various kinds and red bean paste. Frequently, there are air shafts and high ceilings to ventilate and convect these notorious fumes away, but sitting in such close proximity to the barbecue plate, the smell is hard to avoid. And who is complaining anyway? A common bane of barbecue-loving Koreans is the heady scent of sizzled pork and beef on their trendy clothes but who wouldn't want this delicious smell floating around them like French perfume? If anything, it'd stimulate inquiry as to the delectable aroma, and (hopefully) elicit responses along the lines of 'let's check this marvellous place out someday'.
The numerous Koreans that pour in in swarms testifies to what they say about Tong 86 being THE place for Korean food. However I'd understand if they qualified this and said that it was the place 'to go' for Korean food culture rather than the food, because apart from the kimchi served as appetisers, which were much fresher than and not as sour as those from other Korean restaurants, there remains little else the kitchen offers. Arguably, this is a place famous for barbecue, and by analogy you wouldn't go to a sausage sizzle for the buns, but it would be liberating if, like how western steakhouses not only offer steak but salad, spaghetti and pizzas were other meal options, Tong 86 could provide the limitless menu that so characterises Korean restaurants. Tong 86 also doesn't offer too many options for herbivores. Even the kimchi stew has beef slices in it. While this point may be received with an incredulous look from many, it does somewhat narrow down dining-out choices.
But I feel compelled to end on a summary of the plus points of Tong 86- great atmosphere, innovative 'call' button on tables (remember when you'd always complain about lax service? Well they have no reason to ignore demanding diners under the guise of oversight), and what can I say, the barbecue, with all its carcinogenic bits.