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RESTAURANT REVIEW

E-Wha Garden Buffet Lets Diners Do the Grilling

The cafeteria-style eatery offers such traditional Korean dishes as barbecued chicken gizzard and baby octopus.

May 30, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

E-Wha Garden Buffet is housed in a large shopping mall at the corner of White Oak Avenue and Sherman Way. Next door to it is a tiny six-table cafe named Cho-Un, which specializes in home-style Korean soups and stews. Next door to that is a restaurant called Mandarin Taste, which serves Chinese food but is Korean-owned.

Malls like this one, which are becoming a regular feature of the Southland scene, are sure bets for authentic ethnic eating. E-Wha caters almost exclusively to a Korean-speaking clientele, mostly families who crowd into the restaurant's low-slung, leather booths to barbecue dinner at their tables.

The owners have combined Western aesthetics--prints by Picasso and Kandinsky on the walls, classical music playing on the sound system--with surprisingly traditional Korean foods. We're not talking only about the usual Korean barbecued short ribs, folks, but also barbecued chicken gizzard and baby octopus; about acorn starch jelly, candied lotus root and brown rice mixed with fermented soy beans.

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This style of eating is slowly gaining a foothold around here, and certainly not as a means of keeping warm--one of the prime reasons barbecue evolved in frosty Korea. It's like an all-you-can-eat cafeteria, except that you cook your own food. Every booth is fitted with its own gas barbecue, plus an overhead stainless steel vent to remove the smoke. All you have to do is fill up a plate with raw ingredients, carry it back to your table and turn on the gas.

One side of the well-stocked buffet table is practically groaning with raw meats (including various organ meats) and seafood. Most have been zestily marinated and cut up for grilling. (The trays are identified with signs written in both Korean and English.)

There are also an amazing number of side dishes. They include fried whitebait, mandu (Korean dumplings similar to steamed pot stickers), spicy meat broth, sea weed soup, a thick pumpkin porridge and a couple of Japanese items--fresh sushi and breaded pork tenderloin (tonkatsu).

The other side of the buffet is primarily vegetables, plus some sliced oranges and honeydew melons for refreshing the palate. What you find over here is half a dozen varieties of kimchi (spicy Korean pickles), green chiles, okra, onions, leeks, mushrooms, yellow bean sprouts, broccoli and more. The vegetables are all raw too, but unmarinated. You cook them on the barbecue grill alongside your meats.

The best meat might just be the spicy pork butt, deep bronze in color from a garlic-and-chile marinade and much leaner, somehow, than the more sought-after cuts of beef. Then there is bulgogi, thin slices of pungent, aromatic beef. When the slices are done to your taste, the Korean custom is to smear them with garlicky reddish- brown bean paste and wrap them in lettuce leaves, taco-fashion.

Kalbi, short ribs cut flanken-style (across the bone), are possibly the most flavorful of the meats, despite the fact that they have a lot of gristle and require vigilant cooking.

Chicken is available too, marinated with so much sugar and soy that it caramelizes on the outside when cooked. I recommend the chewy gizzards, great with grilled onions and an ice-cold Korean lager.

The lunch buffet is only $7.99, but it doesn't include seafoods. You have to come for dinner to throw shrimp on this particular barbie, and they may be the most delicious thing to eat here, provided you have the patience to let them cool a bit before removing the shell after cooking.

The baby octopus grill up just fine, but the calamari, in a milder marinade with a hint of garlic, tend to turn rubbery by the time they're completely cooked. No, you don't barbecue mussels; they come in the shells already cooked. Unfortunately, they taste as if they have come out of a freezer.

Don't miss the Korean soup ten jan guk, similar to a Japanese miso but made from a lighter soy paste which hasn't been allowed to ferment as long as the darker Japanese variety. And be sure to pick up some chap chae, cold mung bean vermicelli with sesame oil and fresh spinach. It's a cooling dish, and you'll need some cooling down after manning your own grill at E-Wha.

DETAILS

* WHAT: E-Wha Garden Buffet.

* WHERE: 17623 Sherman Way, Van Nuys.

* WHEN: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. daily.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $28. Lunch buffet, $7.99; dinner buffet, $12.99.

* FYI: Beer and wine only. Parking in rear lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

* CALL: (818) 758-9545.

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