I've been to enough Korean barbecue places to know that they are like fingerprints. It was with this in mind that I tried the new Grams BBQ-Tabletop Grill in Garden Grove, a city that has great Korean barbecues within sniffing distance of one another. But as soon as I went in, I couldn't help but compare it to the others, especially Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong, whose two Orange County locations have multihour waits and the undivided attention of the kalbi-and-samgyupsal-loving public.
It's not that they have much in common. In fact, what I noticed most were the differences. Even on Saturday nights, Grams hardly has a crowd. The only time you have to endure a wait is when you're by the door, hoping for a staff member to notice you're standing there. Unlike Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong, which has a platoon of employees to manage the hordes, Grams is woefully understaffed. I counted three servers and not one hostess.
As a consequence, service can be spotty. And since Grams functions like all latter-day Korean barbecue joints, with servers cooking the meat and tending the grill for you, the consequences of the inattention can be calamitous. One night, I watched in horror as the sugar and fat that dripped from my bulgogi erupted into a grease fire. After looking around for help and not finding it, I grabbed the tongs. But it was too late. A quarter of the precious meat was lost to the flames. I should've known better than to treat the grill as a glorified sizzling-fajita hot plate. After all, our server had at least three other tables to juggle, and it had already taken several attempts for me to get a water refill. This isn't to say he wasn't obliging when I did get his attention. If I wanted to, I could've kept him going with the extra helpings of complimentary banchan, especially the macaroni salad and the cold block of tofu set atop a puddle of sweet sauce. One night, after I asked for another round of corn cheese, he came out with a heaping portion that was so generous I had to take the rest home.
And while I'm on the subject of the side dishes, the kimchi here is firmly on the sour side of the fermentation spectrum, and the pickled radish rounds are perky despite not being as thinly sliced as I'm used to. Grams' best and most essential side item is its big salad of shredded cabbage, sliced onions and chives. It's dressed with a glop of ultra-hot chile paste that turns it into a hellishly spicy coleslaw.
Grams' entire setup, while quite different from Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong, is similar to most. The smoke-intake vents are installed high in the rafters, so that as the evening wears on, the haze can get so thick the room starts resembling a foggy morning in San Francisco. The grills are also standard issue, almost the same kind as Lighttown House and the Pine used when they occupied this building.
As at Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong, Grams is not an all-you-can-eat. The menu practically encourages you to order the combos. The choices range from a $55 set, with four meats that feeds two to three, to a $99 set, featuring six meats designed for a party of four or five. However, if you want freedom from what's dictated in these combos, ordering the meat à la carte seems to entitle you to the same extras. This includes a delicate egg pudding akin to Japanese chawanmushi, the aforementioned corn cheese in its own kidney-shaped bowl, and a pot of chile-tinged soybean-paste soup with tofu and meat.
Grams' excellent bulgogi, which is as close as you can get to meat cotton candy, can only be ordered à la carte. And while it's actually considered a side, the fantastic stir-fried brisket with bean sprouts is a meal unto itself. Perhaps the best reason to shun the combos, though, is the picanha (top sirloin cap), which is otherwise only available as part of the most expensive set. The meat comes out preseared, sliced in thick cuts and bloody rare. Save for the pork belly, I found the picanha to be tenderer and more flavorful than any of the beef offered on the $55 list.
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It was so good, in fact, that as I ate it hot off the grill, I realized that even with the service problems, I'd rather come to Grams and similar Korean barbecues for a steak dinner than pay three times as much at Mastro's and Ruth's Chris. Besides, who needs creamed spinach and mashed potatoes when you can have unlimited banchan and corn cheese?
Grams BBQ-Tabletop Grill, 8902 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 530-5620. Open Mon.-Fri., 5 p.m.-midnight; Sat.-Sun., noon-midnight. Dinner for two, $60-$75, food only. Beer and soju.