It's that time again. We're all facing five cold, wet months of staying in bed listening to Nick Drake and dreaming of summer. Ah, summer. The searing of steak, the fanning of smoke, the catching of kebabs before they roll off the plate. Summer is gone, but if you have the will, there is a way you can still barbecue without resorting to your George Foreman. Korean tabletop barbecuing is all about playing with fire indoors, and one of the best places to do it is Koreana.
Tucked inconspicuously into the corner of a strip mall on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, Koreana patiently waits for the world to discover it, ready with an abundance of tables in its warren of dark, rustic rooms.
The meal at Koreana begins with a course of dainty little bowls filled with different types of kim chi, the spicy fermented vegetables that are the Korean culinary calling card. Koreana serves a sensational zucchini kim chi--slices of the squash are dipped in a light egg batter and sautéed before being coated in a fiery red sauce. The delicate batter contributes a sweet, buttery counterpoint to the sharp vinegar and hot pepper. Another kim chi offering consists of mild, garlicky steamed vegetables such as bean sprouts, spinach and daikon radish.
After all this noshing, you might wonder why you ordered a main course. But hang in there, the best is yet to come--the bul go gi (marinated meat for barbecuing) is on its way. On the spicy side is the pork version ($12.95); mellower are the beef short ribs ($13.95) and beef ribeye ($12.95), both marinated in sesame oil, green onions and a garlicky sweet soy sauce.
Right before the main course approaches, the server removes a metal plate from the center of the table, uncovering a cast iron grill. When it's sizzling hot, plates of raw meat and a set of tongs are brought out. Then comes the moment of character assessment. Expect the server to look you up and down and decide whether you are worthy of the tongs or are the type who will smoke out the other guests with your cooking ineptitude. Don't be offended; in an age when even vending machines bear warning labels, it's amazing that a business trusts its customers with fire. Try to look competent--if you pull it off, you will be rewarded with a license to grill.
Most rules for backyard barbecuing apply at the Korean restaurant. You've got to fully cook the pork and at least sear the beef on all exterior surfaces to get rid of pesky microbes. You also want to make sure the fire doesn't flare up and singe the meat. The pork is most at risk due to its high fat content. Just turn the flesh at the first sign of trouble, and you won't be disgraced by the server taking back your tongs. You might also want to cook the pork last so that its marinade's stronger seasonings don't overshadow the other, more delicate flavors.
When all is done, you will find the pork has a slightly blackened, caramelized crispiness with a juicy and fiery interior. The beef bul go gi might look a bit gray and limp, but don't fret; you'll find the meat savory and its pungent vapors intoxicating. Before you dig in, familiarize yourself with the plate containing frilly lettuce leaves, raw garlic cloves and a burnished copper-colored blob of fermented soybean paste called go chu jang. Use a lettuce leaf to wrap a couple slices of meat, a spoonful of rice and kim chi, and a dab of the smoky go chu jang. These lettuce burritos meld the sweet, hot, spicy, salty and astringent flavors of all the ingredients into a harmonious balance. With meat juices and kim chi sauces leaking through seams of the lettuce wrapper, things can get pretty messy, but it's worth it--this barbecue's finger-lickin' good.
Indoor barbecuing is a lot of work--and in fact, there's even a teensy risk that you will ruin your meal, embarrass yourself socially and burn a loved one in the process. But don't let that deter you: It's all part of the fun.
9955 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, #140, Beaverton, 646-7767.
Open 11 am-10 pm Monday-Saturday, 5-10 pm Sunday.
The grill is available for dinner only.