Monday, March 15, 2010
I flipped the car around while attempting to call Lisa, still unable to find the restaurant's signage amongst the congested Korean strip mall mélange. I was scouring the wrong intersection of course, and made my way back to 8th, Lisa illegally aiding me. The black and white sign was actually hard to miss once on the right street, even with a small parking lot next door. I was excited. Soot Bull Jeep is one of the old school granddaddies of the Korean BBQ set, and it was my first time.
What immediately distinguishes SBJ from the rest of the class is the use of charcoal in their tabletop grills. This means SMOKE. Unlike most of the streamline modern KBBQ joints, SBJ is also of a more... modest decor. Frankly, I loved it. It was early yet, so the room was only mildly smoky, the smell of which which only added to my excitement.
As soon as we sat, a server brought us menus and started setting out the banchan. These traditional side dishes included kimchi and other brined vegetables, noodles, garlic, lettuce leaves for wrapping, and various condiments for dipping.
We ordered a couple OB lagers and were each brought a hot starchy soup and small salad before we even ordered. We decided on two proteins to share - the kalbi (marinated beef short ribs) and marinated shrimp.
Not used to a hot flaming charcoal grill inches from my arms/face, I couldn't help but wonder how many incidents at KBBQ per year result in a hospital visit. Still, the warm glow on my face reminded me of camping and tending to the crackling short ribs was a novel conversation piece. Lisa showed me how to cook it just right and how to best use the lettuce wraps, first dipping the grilled meat in the soy/vinegar sauce then adding along with den jang (bean paste), kimchi and the various spiced salads all wrapped up taco-style in a romaine leaf. For extra awesomeness, a freshly grilled garlic clove.
When things got spicy, the bland warm soup suddenly had an understandable purpose, the starchy smooth texture a small break between awesomely flavorful bites of BBQ.
I know SBJ is sometimes criticized for it's price and not being All You Can Eat, but by the end of our supply, I was stuffed. The price ran about $20 per plate/person including all the fixings, and was more than pleasing. Can't say I'd complain, but surely in the future may dabble a bit among the different KBBQ joints to understand the differences. I have trouble imagining it without the smokey char-broiled flavor however.
I decided ultimately that the ambiance of the loud bustling room charmed me, from the vinyl brick paneling to the King-Arthur-chic shields to the Victorian bathroom placards. The service was at times brusque, but overall attendant and sufficient. The food was phenomenal. Another quirky gem tucked quietly away in the bowels of the city, left to be forgotten, or forever treasured, depending on who you talk to.
Soot Bull Jeep
3136 W 8th St. Koreatown; 213.387.3865