Ssambap Korean BBQ
At once rustic and palatial, Ssambap Korean BBQ plays hard to find, tucked away, as it is, in a sideways-facing strip mall. Here, you'll find a warm welcome from co-owner Misook Kim, who asks whether you prefer a regular table or one equipped for do-it-yourself Korean barbecue. The greater part of the menu, though, puts the kitchen crew in charge.
They acquit themselves well with an appetizer of crisp, juicy fried chicken wings coated with a spicy-sweet red sauce. In contrast, shu mai, or steamed shrimp dumplings, seem wan, pasty. There's much comfort in lacy-edged seafood scallion pancakes, the Korean version of latkes, as well as in mandoo soup afloat with beef dumplings.
Banchan, the traditional array of side dishes, and kimchee, fermented vegetables, precedes dinner at many Korean restaurants; here, though, the assortment is served with the main course.
A house rule is that there must be at least two orders per table for a party to partake of Korean BBQ. Even so, our waiter throws away the book on a night that's fairly quiet. Four of us share a single order, placing slices of marinated chicken on a flat grill and, when it's cooked, rolling it in lettuce leaves spread with spicy bean paste and heaped with rice. A pity that the lettuce is dripping wet.
A must-order is ssambap, a rice-paper wrap somewhere between a burrito and a Vietnamese summer roll. Succulent pork belly as well as kalbi, or soy-marinated short ribs, are worthy fillings. So is chicken in hot chili sauce, which sets off a pleasurably slow burn in the mouth. Simple grilled chicken, though, is chokingly dry.
A creditable version of classic bibimpap combines vegetables, ground beef and fried egg, to be tossed with a spicy sauce and rice. You may find more allure in jap chae, an addictive stir-fry of clear jellylike potato noodles, vegetables and beef. Octopus, piquant and tender, comes in a casserole with vegetables, as does a spicy-garlicky codfish stew with vegetables and tofu. A milder choice is kalbi tang, a soup-stew with short beef ribs and noodles.
Pass on the oily fried ice cream. A cup of tea ends the meal on just the right note.