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By Edwin Goei
What happens when a successful teppanyaki restaurant decides to branch out without its showboating chefs? You get a yakiniku: the same dishes grilled over furious flames, now minus the flaming-onion volcanoes, the rat-a-tat-tat rhythms of metal spatulas on flat-top griddles and the toque-topped showman at the center of it all. Actually, that’s a gross oversimplification, but stay with me a minute.
The restaurant in question is Bari Bari, Yorba Linda’s beloved alternative to Benihana with all of the required teppan-theatrics. For its second act, it has opened a do-it-yourself restaurant in the shell of a failed Japanese restaurant on Tustin’s main drag. But instead of tourists getting wowed by Issei named Charley who end their grill shifts by catching a shrimp tail with their hat, Bari Bari’s cooks are you, me and every other customer in the room. Who needs showmen when your pals’ clumsiness on the grill will do for the evening?
Bari Bari and other popular local yakinikus such as Gyu-Kaku in Huntington Beach, Tsuruhashi in Fountain Valley and Costa Mesa’s Anjin are the Japanese equivalent of Korean barbecue, where customers assume the role of hibachi jockey and chef. Comparisons of the two styles are apt and inevitable, especially when OC’s Korean barbecues far outnumber yakinikus. For instance, while the Japanese usually arrange their meats as artfully as sushi, the Koreans pay more attention to quantity than appearance by piling their meats into veritable mountains. Also, kimchi and other side dishes, typically free and refilled without asking at a Korean joint, are often only sold à la carte at yakinikus. Bari Bari is no exception: If you order a meal that comes with the sampler plate of napa kimchi, kakuteki (radish kimchi) and oi kimchi (cucumber kimchi), do not ask for more unless you intend to pay an additional fee for it.
14181 Newport Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780
The best way to eat at Bari Bari is with its three-tiered combos that start at $35 and top out at $75. All include the aforementioned kimchi plate, bowls of rice and a soup consisting of a clear, clean-flavored broth. The lowest-priced set meal can feed three mouths with four meats, three of them beef. The short rib, a thick boneless version of the Korean kalbi, chews more playfully than the rib-eye, which, in turn, is more tender than the skirt steak. After it’s all browned, melted of its fat and swished in a garlic or ginger-based soy dipping sauce, gradations of the tenderness become the only way to tell one cut from the next. But as the fourth protein in the cheapest combo, the sliced chicken breast shouldn’t be discounted as filler. It’s remarkably good here—enduringly moist, crisped with charred edges, perfect with plain rice.
Outside the combos, meats are sold by the plate—mostly beef in prices gradually increasing proportional to their marbled quality. The spare parts of cattle—intestines, liver and tripe—are joined by chicken gizzards as the cheapest proteins, priced to move for as little as $5.50. The most expensive meat, unsurprisingly, is the Kobe rib-eye for $19.50. Squid in magazine-thick squares get pre-tenderized and fool-proofed, incapable of being overcooked no matter how hard you try. The gossamer-thin sliced beef tongue, on the other hand, is not. If it becomes a chewy disaster, you can only blame yourself. The option to have it covered with a layer of chopped green onions only exacerbates grilling mess-ups. It contributes nothing but errant scallion pieces that slip off and turn to bitter bits of charcoal that stick to the grates and contaminate everything that comes into contact with them. And for sure, keep the black pork sausages away from any and all distractions. Slit like shark gills to bloom and plump over the heat, they’re smoky and spurt hot greasy juices like midget knockwursts—no need to sully these beauties with your ineptitude.
When your plates of raw meat are depleted and in the likely event you are still hungry, order the bibimbap. The Korean rice-bowl equivalent of a Cobb salad—topped with meat, various veggies and a runny fried egg—requires some assembly but no cooking. That this and other prepared dishes are unapologetically Korean shows how much the cuisine’s influence has infiltrated this yakiniku.
And there is yet another common link to Korean barbecue: Bari Bari’s grills are similar, if not the same model, to the ones employed by Go Goo Ryeo in Garden Grove. Its built-in, jet-suction side vents draw in even the smallest puff of smoke before it can stink up the room and your clothes.
And that’s a good thing. At the moment, Bari Bari’s dining room is so new it’s grimeless and smell-free. Enjoy it while it lasts because whether Japanese or Korean, all DIY barbecues are destined for a lifetime of grease splatters from a roomful of wannabe teppan chefs.
Bari Bari Japanese BBQ, 14181 Newport Ave., Tustin, (714) 502-0298. Open Sun.-Thurs., 5 p.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Combos serving two to three, $35-$55; serving three to four, $75. Beer, wine, shoju and sake.
This review appeared in print as "Bari Bari Good: Take the teppan into your hands at OC’s latest yakiniku."