|By Gabrielle Johnson Lawrence|
Do it yourselfI don’t want to cook my own food when I go out to eat (I’m thinking of a certain fondue chain). So when I heard about Bulgogi’s “grill your own meat” gimmick, I was skeptical.
We ordered gyozi (dumplings) to start, which looked tasty enough when the first of the three servers we would have that night brought them out. I had to retrieve our chopsticks myself, however, while another one of the servers watched me.
We ate the dumplings and my frustration ebbed. These were pleasantly greasy, juicy little things, filled with flavorful minced pork. We ordered the barbecue combo for two, and when I asked another server what it came with, he read to me from the menu. When I specified that I was asking about side dishes, he rattled off, “vegetables, fish cake, and other things,” flipped on the grill in the middle of our table and walked away.
Granted, I hate the fondue chain, but at least they tell you what the heck to do with their equipment. Server No. 3 returned with a platter of raw beef, shrimp and chicken. He also unloaded little bowls filled with white rice, salad, kimchee (a Korean fermented cabbage dish, which sounds gross but isn’t), the fish cake and … pasta salad. That’s right — regular, Fourth of July cookout, tri-color rotini pasta salad. It looked like someone had made too much of it at home and decided to bring it to the restaurant.
Without being given any direction from the restaurant employees, I threw a mess of meat onto the grill. Nestled next to the raw meat were slices of uncooked corn on the cob. I’m sure these were supposed to be the garnish, but we put them onto the grill too. The boyfriend had a momentary food safety nerd freak out and mumbled things about “cross-contamination” and “salmonella” as he frantically swiped at things with his chopsticks. I let him do what he needed to do and waited until he loaded up my plate. The beef was chewy. The chicken was stringy. The shrimp tasted like air. There was absolutely no flavor to anything; even the corn was mushy.
As our last few pieces of meat came off the grill, one of the servers brought over the check. At that point I’m pretty sure you could have grilled the raw meat on the top of my head — I was pissed. Servers who bring over a check before I have finished my meal have crossed a line. The highlight of the meal was the salad. At least I didn’t have to prepare it myself.
A few weeks later we returned on a weeknight and were pleasantly surprised to see that the place was packed. I asked our server about the steamed egg appetizer, which she struggled to describe, and the beef sushi appetizer. She said she had never seen or tried it, which made sense, because the menu that we had on the second visit was completely different from that of the first.
We started with the edamame and seaweed salad. The edamame was standard, albeit a little over-salted. The seaweed salad had the lemony punch that I like so much. The dude had the Yaki Udon — a platter of thick udon noodles and sliced zucchini, carrot, cabbage, onion and beef, all pan-fried in a sweet brown sauce (think teriyaki). He ate it as quickly as his chopsticks would allow and said that he would order it again, next time with a fork so he could eat faster.
Our server told me that the kimchee soup might be too much heat for me to handle and instead suggested the Den Jang Jjigae, which is Korean miso soup with beef, tofu, zucchini, mushroom and onion. If she thought this soup was milder, she’s crazy. I’ll put it this way: I’d recently had some dental work done and I’m afraid my fillings melted. There were slices of raw jalapeno floating in the broth — how could it not be spicy? Nonetheless, the flavor was delicious and similar to a gumbo, especially after I mixed in white rice in an attempt to cut both the spice and the temperature. I ran out of water after a few bites and couldn’t get the server’s attention, which is its own form of torture.
While our second visit was head and shoulders above the first, Bulgogi didn’t leave me wanting more. Odds are I won’t be back.