Made from Scratch
Do-It-Yourself Eats: Korean Barbecue
If Americans in general love buffets, and Southern Californians in general love trends, then it follows that the people of SoCal would love trendy buffets. Although I see large numbers of people at buffets like Hometown, Golden Corral or Soup Plantation, trendy SoCal foodies would never admit to actually liking such places. I mean, the only reason I go to Soup Plantation on a regular basis is because my parents, both in their 70s, love to eat there. Wink wink. See what I mean?
But the Asian-themed buffet-all-you-can-eat, or in Yelp parlance, “AYCE,” is alive and well in SoCal. In the 90s, AYCE sushi became all the rage, which was a twist on the buffet concept: Charge patrons a little more for higher-quality, hand-made food. Of course people still love AYCE sushi, and sushi shops are everywhere now. After surveying our local SoCal landscape, I’m ready to declare a new trend: AYCE Korean barbecue. It’s a great option for those who want to go out to eat, but still want to cook their
Sure, the type of Korean barbecue where you cook your own food on a hot grill built into your table is not exactly new. These places have been around. But in SoCal, new AYCE Korean places are popping up everywhere in suburban towns. And they run the gamut from the glitzy “high-end” experience of the GenKorean or Wang Cho franchises to the ‘mom-and-pop’ places that seem to run on a much thinner margin. According to my daughter, who studies at Cal State Long Beach, her college friends consistently find decent AYCE Korean barbecue for around $10. I know of a place in Rancho Cucamonga that offers it for $13, and of course there are places that charge up to (and over) $30 per person. That’s quite a range of prices (and maybe quality), but there’s one thing that’s certain: If you’re not a vegetarian, you would probably love these protein-packing restaurants.
I was surprised when I recently took a colleague to Korean BBQ and he had not yet tried a place like this. He fell in love, and since then, it is his “go to” for dates with his wife. These places thrive on a “family style” sharing approach. Because of the additional mouths to feed in larger groups, you can try a greater variety of menu items, and I also suspect that people eat a little more conservatively with family members around. In fact, some restaurants will not take single customers, so check the rules ahead of time before your visit. The only other rules are borrowed from AYCE sushi places—you may get a time limit (usually around 1.5-2 hrs), and if you order something you can’t eat and leave it, it may be charged as an a-la-carte item. I’ve been to shady sushi places that serve extremely large rolls in order to get customers to overeat and pay the overage. Buyer beware. If the tank is getting close to full, and you must order more, always ask your server to cut the portion.
Wang Cho Korean BBQ Chain
While some AYCE Korean barbecue restaurants have buffets where you serve your own portions of meat, the better places use servers. GenKorean servers carry iPad devices that place the order so quickly that the meat often arrives before the server walks away. Recently, Riverside opened a Wang Cho restaurant, similar in many ways to GenKorean. I dined there and found the experience delightful—it is a clean, well-lit large industrial-style space, intelligently laid out with marble tabletops down the center of the main dining area and large booths surrounding that. The service staff consisted of a waiter and a busser, both of whom you will communicate with. (The busser will often offer to exchange your grill for a clean one, and could be the one bringing you your meats and other side-dish refills.) What follows is a sort of primer on what to expect and how I like to approach
The Basics and Non-negotiables
Wang Cho Korean BBQ, like most AYCE barbecues with servers, has tiered menu options. The “Prince” option ($20.99 per person) offers 34 menu items, 26 of which are meat. The “King” option ($26.99) offers some extras that in my opinion are must-haves, and the “Emperor” option ($32.99) offers some better cuts of beef and jumbo scallops. There are some non-negotiables for me at every Korean place that have nothing to do with meat. Korean-style dining means Korean-style side dishes (called Banchan), and without an endless supply of Kimchi—fermented Bok Choi with chili (think sauerkraut with a little heat and without the extreme sourness)—the experience is not the same. I have never been to a Korean BBQ that did not have it, but I have been to one or two that didn’t keep an endless and generous supply coming out. Wang Cho was very generous with this side dish, and my server kept it coming throughout the meal. Other sides you should see are ginger-seasoned soy or bean sprouts (Kongnamul Muchim and Sukju Namul), cucumber slices with chili (Oiji Muchim), julienne-sliced daikon radish in chili sauce (Mu Saengchae), glass noodles (Japchae), daikon radish slices, square rice wrappers, fish cakes and for some reason some good old-fashioned potato salad or mayo-based macaroni salad. Because it’s meant to be eaten family style, sides are often served in bowls that can be shared, and should be dished onto your serving plate (as opposed to eating straight from the dish). If you need refills, servers should be very happy to keep those sides coming out since they are considerably less costly than the protein.
Other non-negotiables for me are the dips and sauces that should absolutely come with the meal. If you don’t see these already at your table, ask for them. These are the essential ones: (1) Brisket dipping sauce (Cho Ganjang) is a light salty sauce usually made with soy sauce, vinegar and sometimes fresh peppers or onions that enhances the barbecued brisket and other non-marinated meats. (2) Garlic chili paste or Bibimap sauce (which is a mixture of garlic chili paste and vinegar) can give any meats a little chili kick with some wonderful garlic enhancement. Chili paste is not super hot; I feel its flavor-enhancing strength comes mainly from the garlic in it. (3) Sea salt mixed with powdered green tea can be used alone, or it can be mixed with sesame seed oil for a deliciously savory dressing for the meats. Some restaurants will have variations of teriyaki sauce and Sriracha, but despite the love for Sriracha in SoCal, these are not essential for Korean dining. The beauty of these dipping sauces is that in different combinations, they bring some savory variety to the dining experience.
There are three meats that are a must-have for any Korean BBQ tasting. Beef brisket, ultra-thin slices of brisket sometimes frozen into rolls, are a great start for any meal. They will be done quickly, and after they melt, they don’t take up that much space on the grill. I usually throw them all on the grill so I can snack on these morsels of delight while other items are still cooking. Some people will tell you the only reason to go to Korean BBQ is so you can enjoy the LA marinated short ribs (galbi). These ribs are cut into long strips through multiple rib bones so each piece of meat almost resembles a piece of bacon with bone. Usually tables are given some tongs and some scissors because chopsticks are not good at cutting meats. I prefer to cut the meat after it is cooked because it gives me fewer items to turn on the grill, and I can avoid cross-contamination. Some people cut the meat before it goes on the grill—either way works—but just be sure everyone’s consistent on that point. The third must-have item for any Korean BBQ is anything labeled “bulgogi.” This is a thinly sliced marinated beef, pork, or chicken (beef could be chuck or bottom-round, and pork is probably shoulder) that is sweet, savory and heavenly. The cuts may not be impressive, but the marinade of soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, sesame oil and pepper make up for it. This item, though it takes a bit longer to cook because of the liquid content, is amazing once it has some char on it.
Other items worth mentioning are the larger cuts of meat—like slices of sirloin steak, larger pieces of chicken, pork belly (thick cut “bacon” minus the smoke and cure) or jumbo shrimp—are all exactly what you’d expect. I rarely order chicken because for AYCE I might as well get the more expensive cuts of meat, and I don’t like the wait-time that chicken takes. But to each his or her own. That’s the nice thing about a diverse menu.
The “Weird” Stuff
First, there is no “weird” stuff. Compared to the American mainstream ‘meat and potatoes’, I find that other cultures are often a little more inventive with their range of eats. That’s one reason why sushi and Korean barbecue have become so popular in SoCal, and why we lead the nation in taco consumption. I know that part of the SoCal ethos is our open-mindedness, and with that in mind, Wang Cho has quite a list, including squid (some places substitute baby octopus), beef tripe (stomach lining), large intestine (make sure you barbecue these to a crisp) and beef tongue. This time around I had the beef tongue, which is an iron-rich counterpoint to the other meats I tried. I also enjoy the baby octopus and squid at various times. Wang Cho offers versions both plain
The Wang Cho chain is a nice addition to the new array of Korean BBQ restaurants in SoCal. Along with the outstanding experience and flavorful food, they offer wine, beer, sake and Korean wines. As for the bar, don’t expect local craft beer. The selection is serviceable and predictable (Sapporo, Blue Moon, Samuel Adams, Dos Equis), but if you’re here for the food the beverages are most likely secondary. There is one requirement for dining here: make sure you’re hungry, because you won’t be when you leave!
Wang Cho Korean BBQ
3639 Riverside Plaza Dr.
Riverside, CA 92506
3911 Grand Ave.
Chino, CA 91710