Photo by Jeanne RiceYou could say that Seoul Garden Korean Barbecue violates the First Commandment of Dining Out: Thou shall not cook.
But you'd be missing the point if you bitched about this because grilling your own is a cool gimmick at this Korean barbecue restaurant tucked into a somewhat run-down and scary strip center in Tustin.
Still, for the uninitiated, seeing a hot grill in the middle of your table and being told to cook your own food—well, buddy, that can be a bit disconcerting. It's not for everyone, nor is it something I'd want to do often. But every once in a while, I get a kick out of the prospect of searing my own flesh in the course of a night out.
Seoul Garden is a buffet, so after being seated and ordering your drinks, you head up to two long buffet tables. One has the meats and seafood, the other vegetables and salads. You load up, head back to your table, and toss the meats on the grill. Handy metal tongs help you along.
Problem No. 1: There is a lot of pork served here, and last I checked, undercooked pork can do some really bad things to your tummy. So there is some trepidation when you cook the spicy pork because you really cannot tell if it's done.
Problem No. 2: Spillage. No matter how hard you try, substantial chunks of your feast will drop through the grill. This gets annoying and makes a return trip for seconds practically inevitable.
But those nitpicks aside, there's quite the selection of meats and seafood here. I scribbled down 16 choices, ranging from beef short ribs to hot bacon and shrimp to spicy squid. On the other table are the fixings for a really good salad, some sushi and such Korean exotica as kimchee (two combustible kinds!), a compendium of spiced, pickled vegetables that can tear through your digestive system like Sherman through the South.
This being a buffet, of course, gives you license to stuff your face. Here's what I ate: a fair-sized pork chop (which one of Seoul Garden's aides-de-camp took off my grill and cut into bite-sized pieces with dazzlingly sharp sewing shears—how very nice); strips of beef that I mixed with grilled onions, green peppers and spinach; grilled shelled shrimp; two chicken wings; a poor salmon sushi; a couple of pieces of California roll; white rice; and red Jell-O and watermelon for dessert. It wasn't as much as it seems (I chose variety over volume), but I was pretty stuffed by the time I left.
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My wife took it a bit easier—a big salad (she gave it the thumbs up for being very fresh), some spicy pork and white rice. She exercised proper restraint.
But this restraint spells economic doom at Seoul Garden. The set dinner price of $14.99 lets you eat as much as you want, but if you're not a big eater (like my wife), you're shorting yourself. But as buffets go, the selections were very fresh and very appetizing.
Cook your pork well, and take it easy on the kimchee. The people around you the next morning deserve this much.
Seoul Garden Korean B.B.Q. Buffet, located at 13828 Redhill Ave., Tustin, is open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 573-9292. Beer and wine. $8.99 for lunch; $14.99 for dinner per person, food only. MC and Visa accepted.