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RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON : All the Pleasures of Korean Barbecue

December 13, 1990|MAX JACOBSON

It was New Year's Day, 1985, and the temperature in Seoul was well below freezing, down around zero. I had been walking around the city all morning in the blustery wind and was chilled to the bone.

The barbecue places didn't open until around 10:30 that morning, but as soon as I could get into one, my first move was to get close to a grill, almost as close as one of those sizzling barbecued short ribs. I realized then why table-side barbecue is so popular in Korea.

Today we find that Korean barbecue has gained a real foothold around here, and certainly not as a means of keeping warm. Orange County has a large number of Korean restaurants in Garden Grove, where the curious can sample the thick, hearty soups, stewed and pickled fish, and various kimchis (fermented vegetables highly seasoned with red pepper and garlic) that keep company with Korean meat dishes.

So we shouldn't be too surprised to discover Picnic Garden. For one set price you can enjoy all the pleasures of Korean barbecue here: sating your primal carnivorous instincts (without risking an attack by a saber-toothed tiger) and getting to cook for yourself, since every table has its own gas barbecue.

Begin at the long buffet line, positively groaning with raw meats. All of them have been marinated in zesty liquids and cut up for grilling (save one: spicy pork chops, which come whole). Bring a trencherman's appetite to this restaurant, and leave your copy of "Diet for a Small Planet" at home. This place is not for the faint of heart.

You'd never suspect it was a restaurant at all, really, at first glance. Looking inside into the brightly lit room, you are struck by the rows and rows of large numbered hoods, all of which hang down ominously over each grill like small blast furnaces.

You certainly won't warm to the atmosphere right off, either. I'd describe it as a cross between a cafeteria and a computer room, with apologies to the computer room. Oh, there are a few slightly wilted plants alongside most of the booths, and a gaudy wagon wheel motif to cut your teeth on, but, well, who cares? You are here to eat meat, and don't you forget it.

The server will accompany you to the buffet line, where she will explain the various items to you as you fill your plate. One side contains the meats, 10 in all, ranging from calamari to those spicy pork chops.

The other side is all vegetables (except for some orange slices, for freshening the palate): kimchi, green chili, onion, leek, mushrooms, bean sprout, broccoli and green pepper. They are raw too, and unmarinated. You will cook these on the gas barbecue grill alongside your meats.

If you like to cook all by yourself, make that clear immediately. The servers tend to help non-Koreans with the cooking chores, mostly to be hospitable. It doesn't seem to occur to them that they are spoiling part of the fun.

The best meat here is those spicy pork chops: giant, thick chops with the bone still in. They take up most of the space on your grill, and the server cuts them up with garden-size shears when they are done.

Then there is bulgogi, which is great slices of pungently scented beef. When the slices have been done properly, smear them with a garlicky red bean paste (which you have to request) and wrap them in lettuce leaves. Wash it down with an OB--a large bottle of Korean lager beer.

Kalbi are Korean bone-in short ribs, and are possibly the most flavorful of the meats here, though they are gristly and require vigilant cooking. And let's not forget beef liver, sliced scalpel-thin and exotically flavored. Eat this one with grilled onions and some raw kimchi. Now that's what I call liver and onions.

There is life after beef here. Chicken teriyaki is one of the few things here that could be classed as mild, but too much sugar and soy in the marinade spoils it for my taste. When you cook it, it caramelizes like candy.

Koreans are big on seafood too. Calamari is a safe bet here, in a good-tasting surprisingly non-spicy marinade with a hint of garlic--the problem is that they tend to cook up rubbery. Last, and least, are the mussels and shrimp, which come from a freezer and lack character altogether. (The server assured me they had been "thawed fresh," as they apparently are every day.)

All of this is accompanied by unlimited quantities of either peppery fried rice with egg, diced carrots and whole peas, or plain steamed rice, the short-grained Japanese variety.

You get a few other dishes too. First there is Korean soup, ten jan guk, similar to a Japanese miso but made from a lighter soy paste. (Translation: The paste hasn't been allowed to ferment as long as a darker one.)

Then, as a bonus, there is something called jap chae, which is cold vermicelli noodles with sesame oil and fresh spinach. It's one of the best dishes in Asia, and it really cools you down.

Of course, you needn't worry about cooling down too much. Just huddle by the barbecue if that happens.

Picnic Garden is inexpensive at lunch, moderate for dinner. Lunch is $6.95 and does not include the kalbi or the mussels. Dinner is $11.95.

PICNIC GARDEN

15972 Euclid St., Fountain Valley.

(714) 775-1118.

Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

VISA/MC accepted.

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