The Korean beef barbeque format is as trite as burgers at a gastropub. Back in the day, the cool kids used to hang at Soot Bul Jeep (where I've never been), driven by its Zagat guide entry and the legendary smoke-stack of a space along a dingy cooridor along 8th Street. Soju bottles would run amok, sided by their taller brethren of Hite and OB beer. My family used to reside at either the James M. Wood (as in the street) version of The Corner Place (Koreans call it Gil Mok) or more often at the Cerritos branch, where I'd frolic around the large environs, high on the sugary fresh broth of their famous cold noodles (after a health dip of grilled meat, of course). These days the AYCE (all you can eat) trend is on its as popular as its been, the glory days of places like Soot Bul Gui Rim or Moo Dae Po (either #1 or #2 - I'm not sure why Koreans have to enumerate their places) seeing a steady plateau. The $10 lunch or $15 (and under) dinner AYCE is packed as always, a credit to the success of O Dae San. Soo Woon Galbi and Park's BBQ on Vermont have healthy traffic while the more westerly Genwa is attracting the gentrified Hancock Park families in droves (and to their credit, the 25-odd banchan is a great feature).
Funny thing is, Korean barbecue as it exists in L.A.'s Koreatown is a worldwide rarity - a treat to a special synergy that our glorious Union of the States as well as proximity to the mother land has created. Throw in ambitious restaurateurs, a constant supply of high quality beef at low prices, and the perfect gourmand's setup - all-you-can-eat, and you quite a little industry. I wonder how many cattle give their lives every day, only to be slivered into the minutest pieces and grilled into a char on some tabletop.
The one little oddity is Oo Gook, perhaps the oddest shape of a restaurant in Koreatown, yet completely at place on a lonely meadow somewhere in the outskirts of Seoul or Nagoya, for that matter. Apparently it used to house a small church (oh Koreans and their churches, carved out of any space imaginable), though the double-decker building now advertises a particularly palatable special: all you can eat "premium" beef. Of course, Koreans, being the communal culture that they are, wouldn't fall for that trap unless there was some truth to it. Reputation alone will build or destroy a place faster than wildfire, which is why so many restaurants in Koreatown see a quick death. You'd never know that a joint in Koreatown opens or closes because Eater hasn't made a special mandate for the area (though I've certainly been tempted to try).
Onto Oo Gook, you pay $25 bucks and you get a superb selection of 18 choices to throw onto the barbee. We started out with the classic "cha dol baegee", or simply, "cha dol." Korean language just sounds awesome when you pronounce it perfectly, and the ennunciation of cha dol (sliced brisket) seems to trigger a Pavlovian response when I'm sitting at the grill. It's just marvelous seeing those fatty slivers melt away their luscious fat, browning within seconds and sometimes taking on a quick sear depending on the alacrity of your table's flame. Dip in either sesame oil or jalapeno'd soy sauce and you're money. Add the crunch of lightly tossed salad, or a waxy sheet of dduk bossam (or less elegantly, "rice paper" for you gringos), and a smear of ssam jang (red chili paste mixed with miso paste). The older folk generally mix in a sliver of fresh garlic (while I like to let mine grill a bit), or toss in a bite of kimchi. The beauty of Korean barbecue is that no two bites are the same since you build your meal as you go. Play with different textures, banchan, meat, sauces - it's all free game. Just don't, under any circumstances, eat in the wrong order. By this, I mean, you should generally follow up beef with pork, not the other way around. Why? I don't know. It's just better to finish with ssam gyup ssal.
We ordered a few other Black Angus sliced beef pieces of mysterious nomenclature, such as the tongue (fabulous), short rib (again terrific), and prime rib (actually a 1/2 in. rib-eye steak). If I had a few of my college buddies with me instead of my parents and one of their friends, we could have run the gamut (which would have included marinaded intestine, skirt steak, marinated short rib, beef belly, and baby octopus, among other things). I did find the fresh shrimp to be delightful, unfrozen and quickly orange on the hot grill. You have to shell and be-head them yourself but that's the fun of it! After you sear them, you get the pure umami of their feelers and shells laded on the grill and then place on some pre-cut slabs of pork belly - score! The resulting flavor is pretty awesome, almost Vietnamese because of the shrimpy-porkiness. But then you realize that the main drawback of "premium" beef barbecue is the terrible infusion of beef tallow that gets under your palate and skin. You have to truly love the intense flavor of beef to withstand this barrage because even shrimp and pork belly are child's play.
I asked my mother's friend, who was joining us from Seoul and headed back the following morning, how much a meal like this would cost in Korea. First of all, it doesn't exist. And if it did, it would easily hurdle $100 a person. Easily. Koreans in Korea have somehow fooled themselves into thinking that American beef is suspect and that Australian beef is better. Their wallets pay the consequences - a single serving of beef that you might get at Oo Gook, or any premium barbecue place in Koreatown would run $30-35. Consider that our party of 4 (including three people in their 50's...who don't eat very much) had 9-10 plates, do the math.
So $25 bucks for such a treat is a singular one. Is the quality of the meat and banchan that much better than say, Moo Dae Po or Road to Seoul? I'm not sure. But hey, you can sit on the second floor window seat and see the sun set, instead of wiping smoke out of your eyes.
3385 W 8th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90005
Seven Days a Week: 11AM-12AM
Note: Oo Gook roughly translates to cattle country in Korean. "Oo" refers to cow. "Gook" means place or country. Or at least that's what my mom told me.