I’ve talked before about how I’m not familiar with Korean cuisine much. In the realm of Asian cuisines, it’s definitely in the group that I’ve explored much less than others. Perhaps because my first brush with Korean food, when I was 8, left me in tears and very, very hungry. Perhaps because I have very few Korean friends to introduce me fully to the cuisine’s other, more nuanced flavors (I am strictly a Korean BBQ afficionado).
Whatever the case, here is the account of my two very different experiences at the same restaurant, all within a week’s time.
The first time I was here, I went with my bf, his coworker N and N’s wife V. My BF, N & V are all white. I am Asian American. We were immediately seated in the far back by the smiling hostess/waitress, who hands us English menus. She reappeared shortly, and deposited on our table glasses of water for each of us. She glanced at me once, before deferring the rest of the night to N and my BF for instructions.
We all decided fairly quickly that Korean BBQ would be the order of the night, to my slight disappointment (I’d wanted to try something new to me, but it wasn’t a big deal). After we placed our order, the banchans (free mini dishes) appeared.
Mostly standard items; various pickled items, some veggies, potato salad, sprouts, and some beans.
We started off with an order of mandoo first. The waitress asked politely, “Steamed or fried?” and someone (not I! I love fried items, even if they are bad for me!) responded, steamed. Dreadfully bland and uninteresting.
The bulgogi (shaved beef marinated), which my BF said wasn’t as good as at other places. I’m not a huge fan of bulgogi, but I agreed with him. It was only alright, nothing special. The waitress cooked the entire time for us.
Kalbi (marinated beef short ribs) in the center, unrolled. The kalbi also was nothing to write home about; good because it’s kalbi, but not particularly special. At other places I’ve been to, the staff generally lets me cook my own meat, but the waitress – who was very nice, I must add – insisted on cooking all of our meat for us.
(You can also see the plate of chicken in the background; I didn’t eat any. I’m not really a chicken kind of person in restaurants.)
When our meal was coming to an end, they brought out complimentary “dessert” –
piping hot cast iron bowls of steamed egg, which was interesting, since I’d never had steamed egg. BF likened it to “the microwaved eggs my mom makes, gross” and N & V were equally dismissive of the dish. I had a bit but got bored quickly of the soft, mushy texture. They also gave us each an individual serving of Yakult (not pictured), the yogurt shots that, as a college kid, I’d downed with shots of vodka. I thought that was interesting and cute.
Since BF insisted on paying, I’m not sure exactly how much it came to – perhaps $25-30 a person? That sounds about right. The overall meal was highly mediocre, though the service was pleasant, it was a bit overbearing in how the waitress essentially wouldn’t let us cook for ourselves.
About a week later, Cookie (who is also Asian American) and I had finished shopping nearby and were hungry. We tried to go to Mandoo Bar, but the line was too long, so finally I said, “Well, I went to Chung Moo Ro last week and it was okay. It looks empty, so no wait. Want to go in?” even though I KNOW, empty restaurants while the rest on the block are packed are NOT a good thing! But we were tired, and we were both hungry, and we went in.
The hostess/waitress immediately rushed over to greet us and quickly sat us towards the front of the seating section. Before we even ordered from the menus handed to us – mostly in Korean, with a sprinkling of English, banchan were served to us.
I can’t say that the two different times are much different; anyone can tell you that the banchan selections usually change daily, based on what they run out of and what the purchaser decides to get (or what the kitchen feels like making, depending on the place). But I did mourn the loss of the potato salad.
The waitress came over and began speaking to Cookie in Korean. I should note here that while Cookie is not Korean, she apparently speaks some Korean, to my amazement and amusement. At one point, I heard her say “mandoo”, and the waitress just wrote it down – without asking fried or steamed. Other than that, I had no idea what was going on, but I assumed she was ordering our food, because the waitress took the menus from us and went on her way.
A platter of fried mandoo… Mmm. These were alright. Different from what I thought, I suppose, but tasty nonetheless.
An order of kimchi pahjeon (pancake). I wish it’d been crispier, the oil and the overall soggy feel to it made it a very heavy part of the meal.
And finally, my first time ever having ddukbogi. Fish cakes, rice cakes (the round tubes of rice noodle), glass noodles, some veggies, and a hard boiled egg up top, all covered in a slightly sweet, very spicy (to my non-spicy palate) sauce. Hearty, tasty, great for a cold winter night. Yum, I really liked this dish, but have discovered that some places make it super spicy, and other places, not so much (and that other places definitely make it better). Be warned!
At the end of our meal, we received orange segments, but no Yakult or baked egg. Very odd. Our total bill, for the two of us, came to $45 including a generous dish (and an unphotographed dish that Cookie ordered, I think a tofu dish).
Yvo says: Overall, a very mediocre place. Every dish I had there was mediocre at best, and some were just downright BLAH. While each separate experience wasn’t that much obviously different from the other time, there was a definite overall sense of being treated differently. Aside from that, there’s a reason this restaurant is easy to get a table at on a regular basis- the food is highly mediocre, and I’m sure a better place can be found within a few doors. I will find that place and report back (and possibly try this dual-visit thing again, if I can scrounge up some non-Asian people to go with me again – any takers?). I’d say pass and try a few doors down in either direction for better food – maybe one of the places with a wait?
very middle of the road, if you’re in a huge hurry and the lines at other Koreatown places are too long for your taste, it’s OK but not wonderful