Every self-respecting Korean-barbecue enthusiast has at least a small portfolio of restaurants to be pulled out for the appropriate occasions: Tahoe Galbi for dinner with the parents, Sa Rit Gol for gourmet evenings, Castle for a boozy night out with the dudes. Even given the fairly strict parameters of the operation, there are several dozen schools of Korean barbecue in Los Angeles, and at least as many groups of people who insist on one kind or another, including the Beverly Hills-like luxury of Chosun Galbi, the elbow-to-elbow natural-charcoal aesthetic of Soot Bull Jeep, the purity of the un-marinated meat at Corner Place (Gil Mok), the all-you-can-eat carnivorous frenzy at Gui Rim, the rice-paper-wrapped barbecue popularized by Shik Do Rak, and the pork-o-centric approach of L.A. Toad, among others.
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Firing line: Server Cloie brings on the Kobe.
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Iron chef: A bowl of bulgogi
But even in Koreatown, Park's Barbecue, a citadel in a Korean mall that also includes a puppy emporium and a 24-hour goat restaurant, stands out. It's a modern place, all steel and glass, with hardly a square foot of wall to stick posters for soju or the latest dreamy-eyed singer to make his way into town. The industrial fans above the tables are both silent and powerful enough to whoosh the least traces of smoke out of the air.
The grills set into each table are powered by gas, supplemented by a handful of shiny charcoal briquets. The waiters — young, gym-buffed men in tight, black shirts, practically invisible until you press the service button on the table — occasionally resemble members of a martial-arts team more than they do restaurant workers. The soju is cold. And the quality of the meat, which includes slivers of Kobe-style prime beef, prime brisket and slabs of the amazing Japanese crossbreed pork belly called Tokyo X, is a least a tick or two higher than it tends to be at other high-end barbecue places, to say nothing of the wondrous display of panchan. These small-plate appetizers, which appear soon after you order — little egg pancakes, pureed squash, tiny fish, the usual assortment of kimchi, spicy roots, broccoli, half a dozen other things — are all unusually fresh by Koreatown standards.
Somebody will probably try to get you to order the seafood pancake, and it's not a bad idea — a vivid yellow Frisbee of a pancake, laced with scallions, shot through with the tiny bay shrimp you might pass by on a seafood buffet but that seem to work fairly well here, if only as a textural contrast to the richness of the eggy batter. (The scallion pancake paejon is essentially the same thing without the shrimp.) There is a kimchi jigae like all kimchi jigaes, a bubbling communal pot of spicy stew, and a decent bowl of naengmyon, the requisite cold buckwheat noodles in soup, which may be enriched with stingray and chile if you wish.
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The waiter comes over, rubs the hot grill with a lump of beef suet. He flinches back as the melted fat explodes into a rush of blue flame. He lays meat on the grill as tenderly as you might put a kitten to bed, which almost makes sense — at more than $30 for an order of sliced Kobe-style beef and near that for short ribs, prime bulgogi or pork, this is the most expensive Korean barbecue in town. The unmarinated Kobe has already started to brown and curl. Even wrapped into a lettuce leaf with bean paste, half a raw garlic clove and a bit of coarse salt, if that's how you like it, the supremely beefy flavor comes through.
Park's Tokyo-X pork belly may be the best pork belly in Koreatown at the moment, slabs of fat striated with meat, creaminess fading into translucency after a couple of minutes on the grill, and then into the sort of juicy pop you might associate with the seared pancetta in a really good plate of spaghetti carbonara. And the marinated galbi — short ribs, L.A.'s own signature cut — is magnificent here, the makings of a meat coma. Crusted with sweet bits of char if you can let it sit long enough on the grill, meltingly tender and bursting with mouth-scorching juice when you are too greedy to wait a few seconds for it to cool, the prime beef makes this galbi a richer, more decadent experience than the versions at Tahoe or Soot Bull Jeep, like a cross between Korean barbecue and a steak at, say, Cut. Even if you don't tend to be swayed by sleek dining rooms, valet parking or a fancy bound menu, when it comes to barbecue, Park's merits a genre of its own.
Park's Barbecue, 955 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown, (213) 380-1717. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and soju. MC, V. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $52-$72. Recommended dishes: seafood pancake, marinated galbi, Tokyo-X pork belly.
Also read Jonathan Gold's "Koreatown's Top 40" from February, 2004.