The all-you-can-eat deal at Surah Korean BBQ & Sushi is an endeavor that demands steely commitment, stretchy pants and the accompaniment of at least two other people. The last part is a real requirement. Though couples are welcome to try it the rest of the week, the restaurant won't allow any fewer than three people per party if it's a Saturday. And believe me, you need the support.
Unlike regular buffets at which it's everyone for themselves, this meal requires a team effort. After you manage to corral a few friends for the task, and before you fork over the $25.99-per-person entry fee, you also need to be familiar with the eating prowess of each member and what he or she had for lunch. If you don't, if you misjudge your fellow diners' fortitude or stomach capacity even a little bit, you will be left without backup when the plates of meat stack three high and the griddle is overloaded with no takers. This, dear reader, is the predicament I found myself in one night after discovering too late the three people I took with me were still full from a big lunch.
Had I known, I wouldn't have insisted on the all-you-can-eat. You could get the meats à la carte for $15 to $37 per plate, but basic math will tell you the all-you-can-eat is the better deal. In retrospect, we might have done better settling for the less-demanding Korean-barbecue combos, each of which includes a set amount of meat for as little as $44.99; but most of those don't include prime cuts of beef, such as yangyum galbi, flaps of beef short ribs your scissors-wielding waiter will sever from a bone as large as a shoehorn and snip into little pieces. The dish is so coveted you're allowed only one serving per person, even when opting for the all-you-can-eat.
Surah Korean BBQ www.surahbbq.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. All-you-can-eat barbecue, $25.99 per person (minimum of three diners on Sat., two the rest of the week). Beer, wine and soju.
The night started hopefully. We plucked the galbi off the griddle still sizzling, the fat rippling from the heat as we ate, the morsels bursting with juice in our mouths. Then we nibbled on panchan, the traditional side dishes essential to the Korean meal. Surah puts out no less than a dozen varieties, each small saucer capable of becoming a meal if a bowl of rice were supplied. There were sardines and boiled daikon covered in a throat-constricting, adobe-red chile paste. There was a canary-yellow square of something potato, a sort of a cross between a chilled potato salad and a casserole. We scraped squiggly meat off the tiny marinated clams on the half-shell and slurped some cooling cubes of gelatin marinated in soy sauce and scallions. By the time we slapped the saeng deung sim, an unseasoned tenderloin steak, onto the griddle, we had finished the first round of panchan. But since we were only two meats into the list of 11, I told my group to abandon dduk bo ssam, the square swatches of oiled rice noodle you're supposed to wrap around pieces of cooked meat. There was no room for it now.
Soon the Kobe cha dol and Kobe bulgogi arrived. The cha dol, a frozen brisket carved tissue-thin and stacked as though hair curlers, cooked almost the instant it touched the grates. The bulgogi took a few minutes of prodding before its redness turned into brown ribbons aromatic of sesame oil and sweetened of sugar. It was about midway into it that I saw my group's appetite waning. Their chews became slower and more deliberate, their faces showing fatigue. When I offered them more charred meat from the griddle, they held up their palms.
"But we still haven't tried the beef belly or the pork belly or the baby octopus," I pleaded. No go.
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I didn't even get to mention the extra rounds of galbi to which we were still entitled. I pushed the call button for our waiter. Now that I was all alone, I told him, I wanted just a little octopus, maybe a few pieces of the Kobe rib fingers and just one serving of the special al bap, a rice bowl decorated with dollops of fish roe so colorful it resembled shave ice. But as the tentacles contracted to rubbery wiggles in the heat and I ate a few of the chewy rib fingers, I realized my own limitations. The finish line was too far away. The sushi rolls, a scorched rice soup, the soy bean stew and the beef tongue would be left unexplored for now.
Next time, I'm going to tell my friends to skip lunch, breakfast and dinner the night before—hell, the week.
This review appeared in print as "Beef Bender: Surah's all-you-can-eat meat feast is not for the weak-willed or the partly full stomach."