Monday, August 10, 2009
Korean BBQ = Sex?
Three of the contenders in the first annual Korean BBQ Cook-Off
The size of Los Angeles’s Korean population is second only to Korea itself, so it’s kind of astonishing that there’s never been a Korean barbecue food festival here before this weekend. But considering the popularity of this particular cuisine, it isn’t surprising at all that the event drew nearly twice the expected crowd of 5,000 to the heart of K-Town.
In fact, held in the parking lot of some slick condo complex and featuring fewer than 10 restaurants, the Korean BBQ Cook-Off was far too small to accommodate the demand. My companions and I arrived just after 4 p.m. to find that a few of the food stalls had already run out of meat, even though the event was scheduled to last another few hours.
I would’ve loved to taste-test a variety of barbecue; ideally, each person in our group would have gotten in a different line and ordered one meal to share so that we could all sample at least or three or four different recipes. But the long waits (30 minutes to an hour) combined with the will-they-or-won’t-they-run-out dilemma prompted us to just get in the shortest line we could find and fill up there while we had the chance. At least we weren’t disappointed by what we got. Ham Ji Park’s spicy pork spareribs were succulent, smoky, and tender with just a hint of heat. I wasn’t familiar with the restaurant before, but I’ll definitely be eating there in the future.
Ham Ji Park's spicy pork ribs
Our later arrival also meant we missed both the Choco-Pie eating contest, which is fine since I find competitive eating absolutely repulsive, and the demonstration of Korean barbecue marinating, which I can totally do with my eyes closed anyway. I did want to be sure to catch the actual cook-off, judged by a panel of culinary celebrities including Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s Good Food, and LA Times columnist Russ Parsons. But clearly the rock star of the bunch was Pulitzer Prize–winning food critic Jonathan Gold, who remarked, “Like sex, even bad Korean barbecue is pretty damn good.”
Judges' table (Jonathan Gold's face obscured)
Gold has written extensively about LA’s various Asian cuisines, including a compendium of Koreatown’s top 40 restaurants, which is why it was so embarrassing when one of the emcees asked him a totally lame question that began something like, “So I was reading on your bio that you’ve tried a lot of ethnic food.” CRINGE. “This probably isn’t your first time eating Korean barbecue,” she continued, “but how is it different from other ethnic food you’ve eaten?” Gold was perfectly gracious about it, of course, steering away from obvious comparisons and instead pointing out that even though he’s visited something like 160 Korean restaurants, it’s only a fraction of what’s out there, and there’s so much more to Korean cuisine than just barbecue.
The grand prize winner was Moo Dae Po, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t translate to anything but Moo Depot, wherein “moo” represents beef. The win is enough of an endorsement for me to want to try the place, but considering Koreatown’s barbecue abundance, I hope in the future there are more than six entrants.
Adam is interviewed for Korean television
We had a great time at the cook-off but I gotta say it wasn’t especially well organized or executed. In fact we learned that the health inspector didn’t even give the OK to start serving food until an hour and half after the gates opened. But hey, it was the first-ever such event, so hopefully the kinks will be worked out for next year.