Ethnic Eating 101: Korean, Part 1

phy @ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Korean restaurants have Seoul... get it?
Welcome to the new year of Ethnic Eating 101! Sorry for the unannounced hiatus; I was hung over--tequila is a delicious but cruel potion.

While the wonders of Vietnamese cooking could fill up half a year's posts, the Vietnamese are not the only group with a large presence in Orange County. This week, we travel to Korea and explore the single most popular Korean food in the United States: barbecue.

Los Angeles has the largest expatriate Korean population in the world; it was only natural that Koreans would plant roots in places outside Koreatown, which is why there are Koreans in La Crescenta, Rowland Heights and Torrance. Here in Orange County, there are large concentrations of Korean restaurants in Buena Park, Garden Grove, Irvine and, increasingly, Stanton.

Koreans patronize restaurants a little bit differently than Americans; when you want to eat Korean food, you decide what you want, and then you go to a restaurant that specializes in it. This sounds like a blinding flash of the obvious, but it isn't: often a Korean restaurant will not have anything on its menu but its speciality, whereas a Vietnamese or Chinese restaurant will usually be willing to make something if they have the ingredients.

santheo @ CC BY-NC 2.0
This one actually says "Korean restaurant" in Korean, too.
Korean restaurants are also, as of this writing, some of the least-assimilated dining experiences available in the area. That's a bold sentence but if you look at other ethnicities' restaurants as a whole, you'll find that they generally have made some concessions here and there to American tastes and American service. This is less so with Korean restaurants, where the chiles flow with abandon (Korean food is often extremely spicy, be warned!).

It starts with the fact that Korean restaurants will often only be labelled in Korean, with a small English sign that has the transliterated name of the place (Woo Lae Oak, Cham Sut Gol, etc.) and "Korean restaurant". While Korean writing (called hangul) is actually a breathtakingly elegant model of simplicity, for all that it looks like angular Chinese, most people aren't language geeks like I am and are not going to bother learning it just to eat in a restaurant.

How, then do you tell what is what?  Unfortunately, the answer is to ask questions of people who would know, and to do research online before venturing out. If you're quite adventurous, you can walk into a busy restaurant, see what everyone is eating, and point; I have done this on a couple of occasions and been both happily and sadly surprised.

The best restaurant service idea since individual printed menus
A word about Korean-style service: unlike Vietnamese, where you are expected to pay the bill at the place bills are paid (i.e., the cash register), Korean restaurants are nearly all full table service. You will need to signal when you need something. You will often see large groups of Koreans eating together and the idea is for the servers to appear only when required and let the guests enjoy themselves. If you want to try out a little Korean, the polite way to signal someone's attention is by saying, "yogiyo" (with a hard G like "girl"). This means "here" and is sort of the verbal equivalent of a polite cough.

This need to signal politely has given rise to the single best contribution to restaurant service in any cuisine whatsoever: the service button, what I lovingly call the "get over here" button. These are little electronic buttons located somewhere on every table (along the edge, near the condiments, up on the wall, etc.). When you need something, you press the button and a server comes to your table. I cannot for the life of me figure out why these are not more widespread; they're a great idea. Some of the nicer Korean restaurants have the buttons but pride themselves on customers never having to use them. The level of service, particularly in barbecue restaurants, is often very good, with waitstaff anticipating your needs.

Enough about the service for now; let's get to the food.

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