Ethnic Eating 101: Korean, Part 1
|phy @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0|
|Korean restaurants have Seoul... get it?|
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 @ flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0|
|This one actually says "Korean restaurant" in Korean, too.|
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|
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.