12 August, 2009
I have been an Angelino for over 10 years now, but growing up in San Diego, I did not have the opportunity to become acquainted much with the Korean culture. Of course there were Koreans in San Diego, but they were often among a large diverse mix of Hispanics, Japanese, Samoans, Filipinos, etc. However, living in Los Angeles where the largest Korean population exists outside of North or South Korea themselves, it is nearly impossible not to become acquainted and grow very fond of Korean culture and, more importantly, food.
After attempting to dine solo on a Korean lunch once about five years ago, I failed to understand the pairings of so many side dishes with noodles and meat. I just didn't get all of the little containers in my gigantic take-out paper bag. So when I was invited last night by my girlfriend and her Korean fiance, I gladly accepted the invitation to learn more about this wondrous and healthy culture and culinary experience.
We drove into Koreatown and emerged onto Vermont just north of Olympic to one of hundreds of strip mall Korean BBQ eateries in a two mile radius. Our eatery of choice was Soowon Galbi, packed with patrons at every table on a Tuesday night. The aroma of grilling is irresistible - it beckons you from the parking lot. We waited patiently for a table and were seated thankfully near a door. You see, Korean BBQ requires you to grill your own meat and veggies on a small tabletop grill in front of you. So I knew I was going to come out of there smelling like a steak. Not that I minded at all...
I had experienced Korean BBQ before with friends, but I did not get to enjoy it with a Korean friend who could speak and joke with the waitresses like my friend's fiance. Well prepared for the plethora of side dishes, I was comforted by having an ambassador at the table to explain the history and technique behind the cuisine. He quickly ordered three meats for us to enjoy, and before I knew it, here came the twenty or so tiny dishes, covering the table.
Chris (friend's fiance) explained the different sauces, some hot and some not, that you could enjoy with the pickled seaweed, bean sprouts, kimchi, radishes, fish and vegetable cakes, and everything else lining the table. Koreans love spicy, and I love spicy, so already I was loving my meal. The waitress came back to the table and said a few words to Chris, who she assumed spoke Korean fluently (he doesn't speak it but understands it... good thing he's cute enough to just laugh and get away with speaking to her in Kor-English), and before we knew it she was slapping a gigantic plateful of thinly slices brisket onto our hot grill. It was a site to behold! What makes Korean BBQ such a fun experience is the interactive way you eat it. You help each other out by watching the meat and making sure it doesn't burn. The Koreans aren't really afraid of germs from person to person, as we each dipped our chopsticks over and over again into the side dishes and meat. Germs are overrated anyway. Our ambassador had shown us how to eat our meat in a small wonton-like taco, wrapping it up with some salad and hot sauce in a flat square rice noodle. I'm half Mexican, so I instantly felt at home with this technique. It was second nature!
The second round quickly came after we devoured the thinly cut brisket, which was so tasty and the perfect start. We segued into a plate of 3 large strips of pork belly - I just fell more and more in love as the night went on. Our lovely waitress cut the pork belly pieces and threw in some onions and mushrooms onto the grill. We fried up the small pork pieces, while we found a second round of small plates being ushered onto our overflowing table. Two favorites of mine were the fluffy omelette in a bowl, and the bean paste soup.
The omelette was so light and seasoned with scallions, and quite hot. Apparently the Koreans are very keen on freshness, which also translates into the hottest temperatures possible for food just out of the kitchen. Equally as hot was the bean paste soup, which after letting cool down a bit, I enjoyed thoroughly. Fresh pieces of tofu and meat as well as jalapeno and zucchini made the soup a nice break from my meat overload.
Our final victim on the grill was an order of beautifully marbled rib eye. The Koreans know me so well! They served so many of my favorite flavors - beef, pork, sipcy, egg... We almost thought we were all too full to continue, but after smelling the rib eye grilling up into a nice medium rare, it was nearly impossible to turn away, full belly or not. The meat was tender and juicy, and at that very moment, I thought to myself that this was possibly the best dessert I could ever have. What I appreciated most about the meal was that as full as I was, the small bites of meat and side dishes allowed for a slow digestive process - the entire dinner took just over two hours. Oh, and we were all wrong: we had PLENTY of room to finish off the rib eye.
Finally, as I was looking up the Korean names for our meat entrees, I noticed the very back of the menu had instructions and history on the side dishes and techniques for a Korean BBQ meal. This was perfect for the naive like myself, and I found it refreshing and very kind for the restaurant to share this information. Or they were probably just sick of trying to explain it all to ignorant patrons like myself over and over again everyday...
All in all, I can't wait to have Korean BBQ again. I am feeling just confident enough to even try it on my own! No more wondering what the hell I do with this pickled cabbage or spicy hot sauce and bean sprouts in my takeout bag. Kamsanida, kamsamnida!!