12: Kalbi at Soot Bull Jeep.
If a spaceship landed on the outskirts of L.A.'s Koreatown, with it's extraterrestrial inhabitants dead set on experiencing the atavistic pleasure of Korean barbecue, then we would likely point them to Soot Bull Jeep, a loud, bustling brick-lined restaurant on 8th street that resembles one of those dark underground comedy clubs with a dozen or so huge metal grills instead of a brick-backed stage.
While you could find higher quality meat at nearby Park's, or more luxurious service at Soowoon, or a much cheaper all-you-can-eat experience at Castle BBQ down the street, Soot Bull Jeep's most appealing feature is its use of charcoal. It's not just any charcoal, but a kind that sputters and sparks, filling the entire restaurant with a dense cloud of smoke that seems almost thick enough to scoop at with a spoon. Your favorite sweater will undoubtedly stink with charred meat after even the briefest meal, and you will be lucky if doesn't end up speckled with little burn holes from flickering embers.
Of all the raw protein selections to choose from — whole squid, chicken, and beef tongue among them — the best is the large sheets of short rib, or galbi, which come marinated in a barely sweet soy sauce mixture.
Like most Korean barbecue restaurants in this city, the short ribs are cut L.A. style — parallel to the bone instead of perpendicular, which is the traditional method in classic Korean cooking. The result is thicker squares of beef, some with bones dangling on the edges, rather than the long strips punctuated by several little coins of bone.
When the meat is cooked to your taste, you can wrap it in a sheet of lettuce with a little bit of kimchi or the fermented bean paste dwenjang. Your meal will not lack physical labor: either you or your harried but determined waitress will spend much time manning the super-hot grill, trimming things with long scissors, or snatching bits of blackened meat off the grill before they become carbonized ash. It's a dinner not for the faint of heart, but the thrill of surviving a meal that's equally parts Paleolithic feast and pyrotechnic show is supremely gratifying.
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