Sunday, May 08, 2005

What to expect when dining at a Korean restaurant

Disclaimer: This post is in reference to mid-level, family-style Korean restaurants. If you are looking for a reference to how to behave in a hoity-toity place, I have no idea so don't even ask me. Also, LOOK AROUND YOU. If it seems like the service people are on top of things, don't follow the things I tell you to do, dummy.

Whenever I look up reviews for a Korean restaurant I haven't been to, I see comments like these:
  1. "The service was terrible! I couldn't get any water, and it took 20 minutes to order!"
  2. "I think they gave me crappy service because I'm not Korean."
Ok, I have some stuff to say to you in response:
  1. Dude. When you go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, do you get pissed that you didn't get a nice cloth napkin and a selection of fine red wine? Conversely, when you go to a five-star restaurant, do you get pissed that all the entrees aren't $6 and you don't get a plastic baggie of oyster crackers with your soup order? You have to go with the proper expectations. I will cover more info later, along with how to know when you've found a place with good "service".
  2. [insert major eyeroll] Man, it's not because you are not Korean. It's because you don't know the proper protocol for ordering. You can be the least Korean-looking person in the entire place, but if you know what you are doing, you can get the best service in the house. The restaurant people most emphatically do NOT want to alienate non-Korean customers; they want to get more. They know the Koreans will keep coming, but there are only a limited number of Koreans. Do the math.
What is good service?
You know you've gotten good service when:
  • You get as many refills of the little side dishes you ask for (within reason). Don't expect them to notice on their own or know that you want more. Ask. And try each little thing. That scary red thing might be the best thing you've ever tasted. But then again, maybe not. Incidentally, I read somewhere that it takes a good 8-10 tastes to gain an affinity for new tastes. So even if you didn't like it last time, try it again, especially if it's at a different place. Don't be a baby.
  • There are about a billion little plates on the table (but not at the specialty places -- you should only expect a couple of side dishes in specialty places). Oh yeah, baby.
  • They bring over a freebie entree. This happens quite often in most places I've been to, especially when you are in a group of 6 or more, especially on a slower night. Don't be offended if they don't bring you a freebie, but be excited if they do. And it has NOTHING to do with if you are Korean. Seriously. Get over it. Tip extra if they bring you freebies.
Don't expect that:
  • They will have your water glasses constantly filled. If you like lots of water, then ask right away when you order to get a pitcher of water. They won't think it's impolite.
  • They will remember the refills on the little plates the first time, but also don't be a jackhole about it, glaring and using the pissy voice. It's just not that kind of place.
  • They will be able to make recommendations for what you want to eat, if you want to be "experimental" because while the mainstream stuff is pretty good for most people, and the fringe stuff might be too much for most. I will cover the popular dishes later.
  • They will bring you your check when you are ready. Nope. Wave someone down when it's time. It's rude in certain types of places, but not rude in most Korean restaurants (look around you first to make sure it's ok).
How should you behave?
  • When you arrive, don't expect the hostess to remember who was there first. She might, but she might not. Be respectful of the people there before you, but if a bunch of Korean business men try to muscle in in front of your crew, don't just try to glare them down. Just don't let them pass and get closer to the hostess (unless you think they are trying to join others that are seated and waiting for them) and make sure you tell the hostess how many are in your group first.
  • When you want anything, look around you and flag someone down. If you need to get half out of your seat and raise your arm, and it seems appropriate (others are doing it), then do so. And again, DON'T get pissy and be that person. No one likes that person.
Popular foods
The holy trinity of Korean BBQ consists of:
  1. galbi/kalbi (literally "rib") - Marinated beef short rib, my favorite meat dish. Main marinade notes are soy sauce, some sugar, and garlic. "LA style galbi" is the short rib cut across the bone, with three bones in each piece. Eat the meat down to the bone (not to the fatty layer near the bone), if you are eating with my mom, or incur her wrath forever.
  2. bulgogi/bulkoki (literally "fire meat") - Marinated thinly sliced rib-eye. The marinade tastes a different, but similar dominant notes and usually less fatty than galbi, but I'm telling you, go for the galbi.
  3. dweji bulgogi (literally "pork fire meat") - Spicy pork. Dominant flavor notes are from red pepper paste (made with red pepper flakes and rice flour), sugar, ginger, and garlic. The spiciness varies by restaurant to restaurant, but it's generally not blazing hot, just packs a medium heat, which is mitigated by the sugar and fat.
You really can't go wrong with these. You generally make little bite-sized wraps with a piece of lettuce as the wrapper, some rice (but this is so old school in Korea -- no one eats BBQ with rice anymore, those young whippersnappers), a dab of bean paste, and whatever you feel like adding to this base from your sides. I'm not a big fan of "dak galbi", which is chicken in the same marinade as galbi, as it doesn't seem very Korean to me for some reason. Eh.

Everyone loves dumplings, jap chae (clear noodles with veggies and prob beef), and pa jun (scallion pancakes), so they are good picks for appetizers or a supporting entree. If you wanna be more adventurous at a BBQ joint, you can go for spicy squid (same marinade as the pork) or kimchee & tofu sautee.

Other types of restaurants are:
  • Tofu stews joints - Will generally carry soon dubu jjigae (silken tofu in a spicy red stew), dwen jang jiigae (a miso-like bean paste stew, which should not be spicy), kimchee jjigae (er, kimchee in a spicy red stew), and other hearty wintery stews.
  • Ox tail soup joints - Will generally carry ox tail soup, dumpling soup, chicken soup.
  • "bun shik jum" - Hmm, I don't know what this translates to. But it has a lot of in-between meal foods or less fancy foods, usually jja jjang myun (noodles in black bean paste - my favorite dish as a child), fried rice (pretty different from Chinese fried rice), dumplings, and other random dishes. Sorry I'm not explaining well. What can I say. Heh.
Because bbq meat dishes are so popular in the US, almost every place will carry entrees that include those things.

Man, I was gonna add more crap, but I'm pretty tired and I'm boring myself. Too bad for you... for me to POOP ON!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am intrigued by this "bun shik jum" thing. Got any suggestions for places to try?

I've been eating ja-ja men (or literally, "noodles of Jar-jar")(Japanese bastardization of the chinese name) at a bunch of different places recently, since it seems to vary wildly.


5:35 PM  
Blogger casacaudill said...

pork fire meat = good

11:41 PM  
Blogger ei-nyung said...

I don't have any particular restaurants to recommend... These tend to be slightly smaller and less popular, so unless I've been to a particular spot, I won't know it. The only place I've been out here is on Telegraph, right by the Koryo BBQ.

These are the types of places that kids on their way back home from school (or college students) will casually stop by at for a bite with their buddies, rather than a formalized get-together.

I've bought the base bean paste to make jjajjangmyun, but I've yet to make it. It's fairly easy -- you follow pretty much the same procedure as when making Korean curry (or Japanese curry, to you weirdos), except not so much with the water, since it's not a soupy dish.

12:55 PM  

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