Friday, May 22, 2009

When in Hawaiian Gardens, Do as the Natives Do; Go to J Korean Barbecue Restaurant

There is no denying that all-you-can-eat dining is the most delectable culinary invention during the last two decades or so, with hundreds of these restaurants sprouting like mushrooms in the Los Angeles basin. The early players, which opened their restaurants in the early 80s, have ruled the restaurant landscape and have retained their distinct markets. However, the phenomenon had given birth also to a sub-specialty -- Korean-style Barbecue all-you-can-eat dining. During the intervening years between the early 80s until the late 90s, more and more all-you-can-eat restaurants of different persuasions had been established, some specializing in Chinese, Thai, even Filipino foods, and a combination of these. The Japanese restaurants took a while to jump into the fray owing to the more expensive ingredients required in Japanese cuisine. But a few daring Japanese establishments were forced to join the scramble in order to retain their competitiveness. Years ago, a friend took me out dining at Genghis Khan BBQ restaurant in Alhambra, and that first experience had converted me into a Korean Barbecue devotee, even driving all the way to the South Bay city of Lomita when Genghis Khan opened a branch there.

I'm not your typical all-you-can-eat gourmand, in the sense that my capacity to ingest pounds over pounds of food is limited to the a certain degree by the slowly receding size of my stomach, so I am on the lookout for all-you-can-eat establishments that do not pursue the practice of unlimited dining because it is fashionable and it is what other restaurants do.

My recent meanderings had taken me to the city of Hawaiian Gardens, close to Cerritos, where J Korean BBQ Restaurant was in the thick of introducing a very popular beef barbecue (in South Korea). Andy Moon, the amiable owner, informed me that "kolbi" (barbecued marinated rib-eye steak) is the most popular barbecue item in his homeland South Korea. Not that Andy is new to kolbi, and boolgogi, two very popular and succulent barbecue iterations. It is because he wants to liven up his business and to cater to another segment of diners that prefers all-you-can-eat dining, minus the related excess and unchecked gluttony that are the stock-and-trade of other bigger establishments.

Over at J Korean BBQ, the concept is pursued not with wild abandon, but with a little more restraint. Don't get us wrong here. J subscribes to the concept, the only difference is that his servers, and sometimes Andy himself, would be on hand to serve every customer's pick for as many times as the customer asks for the array of meat barbecues and other delicious entrees, including pork and chicken. Just like in other AYCE restaurants, each customer pays a fixed amount for each combination that he orders.

When I dined there one afternoon recently, I was very lucky to find Andy, being that it was close to three in the afternoon, and the restaurant was serving just a handful of customers. There are three big screen television sets tuned to Travel Channel and Animal Planet. It serves liquor and other alcoholic beverage, and it is open for business from 10:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. everyday. The tables are large and can accommodate six to eight diners, and most of them are topped with built-in gas-fired hibachi grills. After he is served with the uncooked, marinated beef, the customer takes things into his own hands and grills the meats himself.

The entire dining area can accommodate around 90 diners at one time. When a customer orders a particular entree, say the newly introduced "kolbi," a server brings a tray of the marinated rib-eye steaks and sidings that include pickled radish with diced red chili; pickled cucumbers, marinated soybean sprouts, potato salad, and kimchi -- fermented napa cabbage. There is also a green salad with vinegar, soy sauce and honey dressing, and steamed rice. This combo is quite substantial: the rib-eye steaks alone weigh approximately two pounds, or one kilo. That's pretty big. Here's the surprise: the whole package is only $21.95 plus tax.

From my point of view, that one combination should suffice to feed me and my family (wife and daughter), leaving just enough space for the desserts (not included). But that is not the coup d' grace. It's the taste and the rib-eye's reputation as one of the most tender beef cuts of all. Andy, in his desire to prove the superiority of his culinary offerings to me, made me taste kolbi that's been marinated for 24 hours versus kolbi that's been soaked in its marinade just minutes before grilling. Well, the difference is like night and day. The beef that's been marinated for 24 hours was the hands-down winner.

Andy tells me that they make the marinade from scratch. He was even generous enough to tell what ingredients went into the marinade. But I will not disclose that information to everyone because I would want you to go to J Korean Barbecue to savor Andy's kolbi barbecue in person. However, having said that, I would tell you that it was one of the best rib-eye steak barbecues I ever had. I also enjoyed the sidings, particularly the pickled radish and the kimchi.

If you are not into kolbi, or boolgogi ($9.99 per person, indefinitely), you may opt for the other offerings, like the thin-sliced beef brisket, sliced pork neck, marinated beef, non-smoked bacon, and marinated short-ribs for $14.00; the thin sliced beef brisket, sliced pork neck, marinated beef, non-smoked bacon, marinated chicken, marinated pork, marinated beef short-ribs, sliced beef tongue, also for $9.99.

J Korean BBQ is located on the northeast corner of Norwalk Bl. and Carson St., in the city of Hawaiian Gardens. It is about three-quarter mile east of the Hawaiian Gardens Casino. "This restaurant has become a regular with casino dealers," says Andy. "They come here to dine after their shifts."

For somebody that routinely drives some twenty odd miles to have an enjoyable dinner, I am not at all discouraged by J Korean BBQ's distance from my home in Glendale. After all, on weekends, when there's relatively little traffic on the freeways, almost every point in Los Angeles County feels like a twenty-minute drive. J Korean BBQ is on 11201 Carson St., Hawaiian Gardens, CA 90716, with telephone number (562) 865-1178.

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