Seoul Food

Feb 10, 2011 at 12am

There is an old woman who lives in the burbs of Los Angeles and stands at nipple height whom I call “halmuhnee.” That’s grandmother in Korean. I grew up across the street from her and am still best friends with her granddaughter. It was in her house that I cried as kim (dried seaweed) wrapped itself around my baby teeth and clung to my throat. I remember climbing the cabinets to get a look at the gochujang (red pepper bean paste) fermenting in jars in the kitchen. Korean cuisine is in my blood.  

In LA, not only is there a Korean BBQ on every corner from downtown to Koreatown proper, but they’re all yummy, and most of them are all-you-can-eats. Craving bulgogi (marinated beef) and Hite beer years ago, I excitedly tried a Korean BBQ here in San Francisco. It sucked. I resolved to book LA plane tickets coinciding with Koreatown dinner reservations moving forward, and I never looked back. Until now. 

San Francisco has some of the best food in the world. Why should I be let down in the doenjang department? I set out to find where Korean BBQ worthy of my childhood memories is hiding. 

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The first recommendation I got was for Brothers Restaurant. It’s been around since 1987, has two locations, and has built a reputation of hospitality and flavor-rich lean meat. Hopeful, I entice a starving ballerina to come with me to the Inner Richmond.

I’m actually a little nervous – I can’t stand to be let down again. Here comes the piping hot jjigae, the most-always complimentary tofu- or beef-based spicy soup with kimchi, a mixture of squash, green onions, and other vegetables. It’s reminiscent of what I ate at my neighbor’s house. The butterflies in my stomach calm down.

I order two staples – bulgogi and  kalbi (marinated short ribs). Our waitress throws the first round on the grill for us, and then hands the tongs to me. Brothers is the only place I know of that uses mesquite charcoal – it holds more flavor than gas fuel and it’s greener. The difference is in the meat – this is the least fatty, most tender bulgogiI can remember. San Francisco – 1, Los Angeles – 0.

Sung, the owner, brings us jalapeño and garlic to roast on the grill. Jalapeño? This is new. Bite that makes me shut my eyes with pleasure at Brothers: kkakdugi (daikon kimchi), its house-made  doenjang (fermented bean paste), rice, bulgogi, and jalapeños, wrapped in lettuce.

I usually skip the sikhye – a sweet, iced rice tea served as dessert. But at Brothers, I ask for a second and third round. I also ask Sung where I can buy some Hite beer to take home with me, and she actually calls Seoul Market on Geary and 11th to ask for me. (Yeah, they have it.) I want Sung to adopt me. 

In my research, I had found two types of people – Brothers enthusiasts and Han Il Kwan fans. I’d fallen slightly in love at Brothers, but had heard a rumor that Korean tourists flock to Han Il Kwan for BBQ in the Outer Richmond. I had to find out for myself.  

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My wide-eyed date and I order bulgogi and kalbi to compare with the meal at Brothers. I put a heap of each on the grill. I pull the kalbi off to let it cool a little, and cut diagonally across the center with big, orange-handled school scissors. The meat pulls away so I can tear the rest off. I’m gnawing on the kalbi, juice dripping down my chin. My date is just going to have to deal with it.  

Brothers' bulgogi can’t be beat, but the kalbi at Han Il Kwan has me literally sucking on the bone. While I love meat far too much to be a vegetarian, I’m habitually the timid type of omnivore who stops short of the bone and gets grossed out when it tastes too “gamey.” Not anymore. I’ve crossed over and I’m not sorry about it.  

After an hour, I’ve retired the tongs and scissors and decided the Korean tourist thing is an urban legend. Right then, two white cruiser buses pull up outside. Old Korean men and women are shuffling off and then disappearing. Where are they going? Through the back entrance into a large private room with long, banquet-style tables just for them.  

So, it’s true. Every single day, 50 tourists visiting LA from South Korea take a bus to eat at Han Il Kwan on the last leg on their tour. People, from Korea, take a bus from LA to the Outer Richmond, to eat here. Don’t doubt it – just eat here now.

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I couldn’t rest until I found an all-you-can-eat (AYCE) Korean BBQ joint. Yakiniq is nestled amongst a slew of karaoke clubs on the outer crust of Japantown. Taking a hint from its pop-obsessed neighbors, Yakiniq is open (and still serving AYCE) until 2 a.m. on weekends. It feels a little like a nightclub in Seoul, with Korean music videos blasting, dim lights, pitchers of beer, and a young crowd.

To help me take full advantage of Yakiniq’s all-you-can-eat, I need hearty support. I enlist an old friend who is 6-foot-something, has worked all day, and has just ridden his bike all the way from the Embarcadero. He’s hungry. And I, for whatever reason, am always able to eat my weight in Korean BBQ. We’re gonna kill it.

This is the Korean BBQ I’m used to – there’s both bulgogi and brisket, which is not marinated, and they’re rolled up in thin strips that unfurl on the grill. The $19.99 AYCE option gets you beef brisket, kalbi, garlic butter chicken, spicy chicken, pork skin, tripe, and baby octopus. ACYE is no time for holding back, so we throw in the extra four dollars to get the unlimited bulgogi, along with beef tongue and marinated pork neck.

We begin with the kalbi, and steadily, sweatily, work our way through bulgogi, beef tongue, spicy chicken, garlic butter chicken, and beef brisket, with frequent banchan (side dish) and rice bowl refills.

Yakiniq wins the award for Most Like a Los Angeles Korean BBQ. Not only is it the only AYCE in SF, it’s also the only one that has  dduk bo sahm (thin rice paper wrappers). I understand that San Francisco’s hippie culture doesn’t believe in MSG (which dduk bo sahm can have in them), and that’s why lettuce wraps are more commonly used here. But to me, it’s just not Korean BBQ without a small dose of it, so I’ll take my chances.  

Between the dduk bo sahm and the japchae (clear, stir fried noodles with vegetables, seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil), which is my favorite banchan, I’m flashing back to playing kawi-bawi-bo (rock-paper-scissors) in my neighbor’s backyard – I’m loving life.  

Two hours, six courses, three Hites, and a pitcher of OB beer later, our clothes are loosened around the waist and have taken on the smell of meaty smoke. I feel too fat to move. My partner in crime is dosing off. Mission accomplished. 

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Brothers and Han Il Kwan have preset menus for parties of four or more. If you plan to go to Han Il Kwan, it’s a good idea to make a reservation since you are often times competing with, literally, a busload of VIPs. Yakiniq gets packed on weekends, so I wouldn’t recommend testing that water sober – because no one else does. So, eat all you can during the week or earlier in the evening to avoid the crowds.

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