But Korean barbecue is a glaring exception — "the more, the merrier" couldn't be more apt when you're talking about sharing and cooking huge platters of meat on a tabletop grill. When I'm looking for an instant party, I just grab a bunch of carnivorous friends and head out for a bulgogi fix.
My latest discovery is Ewha Korean Restaurant, a tucked-away, low-key spot in the corner of a west side strip mall. The fact that it's not easy to find hasn't kept away hordes of Korean diners who gather around big tables, as well as groups of young Japanese student types. (Korean barbecue is hugely popular in Japan, where yakiniku fits right in with the group dynamic.)
The clientele lends Ewha an authentic atmosphere, more than the actual décor, which is spare, almost sterile — white walls and tile floors aren't jazzed up with much color. There's no inherent charm to the space, although the smiling staff here lightens the mood.
It struck me as a sort of blank canvas. Really, after I was in the middle of dinner — with cold Hite beer (a Korean brand) flowing, food sizzling in front of me, and the table covered in all sorts of dishes — that was all the eye candy I needed.
And it was a feast for the senses, starting with the gratis appetizers called banchan. Every Korean restaurant serves them, whether you come alone or with friends, and it's always tempting just to fill up on these nibbles with a steaming bowl of rice.
I was impressed with the spread. On my last visit, I counted 13 banchan, which was very generous — and when our waitress saw that we'd finished some of them, she offered to bring us more. I wanted to say, "Yes, please," but I had to hold off to save room for the actual dinner.
There were several kinds of kimchi, including traditional cabbage doused in red chile, cucumber with carrot, big, crunchy chunks of daikon, and smaller pieces of daikon pickled with green onion. On the milder side, there were bean sprouts and chilled spinach, both kissed with sesame oil, thin strips of fried fish cake, slivers of dried squid in chile sauce, seaweed with cucumber, salted cucumber, salted potato, chunks of potato soaked in sweet soy (one of my faves), and fried tofu with sesame seeds and green onion.
The small bites were great, but I had no idea what an avalanche of food was about to descend on the table. Goon mandu — a.k.a. gyoza, or dumplings — were plump with pork filling, deep-fried until golden. Vegetable tempura (squash, onion, sweet potato, broccoli, and zucchini) was a big portion but too heavily battered for my taste. I preferred the decadent haemul pa jun seafood pancake with green onion, which was as big as a pizza, doughy on the inside, and crispy around the edges.
Kalbi dolsot bibim bap — rice in a hot stone bowl, topped with sprouts, spinach, carrot, an egg, and chunks of beef short ribs — was still sizzling when it arrived at the table (creating delicious crispy rice bits at the bottom), while kimchi chigae, a nuclear-hot, chile-red stew of pork and cabbage in potent, rich broth, was bubbling like a volcano in a bowl.
You need to order a minimum of two grill items to do the cook-it-yourself tabletop barbecue, or else the kitchen will prepare it for you. Just for sheer entertainment, it's worth it to go for the tabletop, but it's also fun to cook things the way you like them — sear your beef and keep it medium rare, or let the fatty pieces cook down and get crispy.
Plates heaped with crisp, frilly lettuce and tiny dishes of miso paste accompany the barbecue — tear off a cool green piece, dab it with miso, and wrap up a chunk of hot meat before you pop it into your mouth. Somehow the fresh vegetable component makes it so much easier to eat an obscene amount.
There are lots of things to try — chicken, pork, several kinds of beef, and even squid. And for this reason alone, you'll thank yourself if you've brought a group of hungry pals to help you sample it all. Kalbi (marinated beef short ribs) were tender and slightly sweet, while bulgogi (beef tenderloin) was sliced more thinly and easier to sizzle up in a flash. I liked the juiciness of the former but the instant gratification of the latter.
And I loved the saewoo gui, big butterflied shrimp in tangy vinaigrette with an amazing assortment of vegetables — carrot, red pepper, onion, green onion, mushroom, zucchini, broccoli, garlic, and jalapeño. Since each of the veggies cooked at different speeds, this dish kept my whole table busy until the last bits of garlic were finally soft. Good stuff, and a good time.
As if that weren't already enough, we'd forgotten that we'd ordered chap jae, a fantastic heap of black pepper-flecked glass noodles, beef, carrot, red pepper, mushroom, onion, and green onion. When the waitress brought it out, we all groaned a bit, but happily slurped it up anyway.
And just for pure punishment (it seemed), we received a complimentary salad to lighten things up. Nothing more than lettuce, shavings of green onion, sesame oil dressing, and red chile flakes, it was simple but scrumptious. There's always room for lettuce, right?
As long as you don't show up alone.