Mound your manners. Photo by Jonathan Ho
Mound your manners. Photo by Jonathan Ho

This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Blame Spike Lee. In his 1989 classic Do the Right Thing, the mercurial director forever typecast Korean entrepreneurs as rude, aloof, even racist. The caricature influenced the rioters of Los Angeles who burned Korean businesses to cinders back in 1992 and exists to this day. But it's a lie. Just visit Ku Wol San in Garden Grove's Little Seoul District and debunk the stereotype yourself.

The large, immaculate restaurant is devoted to the art of grilling meat. Blown-up pictures of raw, glistening cuts pass themselves off as artwork here. Each table features a gas-powered grill, where eaters grill beef, pork, poultry and seafood to their liking. The scent of slowly burning flesh is overpowering but hypnotic—you can't help but to place multiple orders and feast all night.

The meat arrives in waves. But your Korean waitress won't allow you to touch it. Instead, she cuts the meat into manageable strips, throws them onto the grill and allows them to sizzle for a bit. When she sees you trying to turn over the meat, she'll rush to the table and do it herself. This game continues until the meat is well-done, at which point she places the best chunks onto your plate.

You notice the waitresses don't similarly hover over Ku Wol San's Korean patrons. You wonder whether she thinks you're stupid. Stereotypes fill your mind, especially when your dining partner grabs some tongs only to have the waitress yank them away. But keep your foodie ego in check: the girl has a smile. Besides, the meat is stupendous. Spicy pork is embedded with chile seeds; beef tongue is almost as rich as a block of fat. The kalbi (beef short rib) is cooked bone-in and as delicious as the finest rib-eye. Whatever type of meat you might order, don't just eat it au natural: place it in some rice paper, add some spiced lettuce and cucumbers, smear some salty bean paste on the mess, then dip the miniature wrap into an amber-colored sauce that will singe your tongue with equal amounts of salt and pepper.

Ku Wol San sells many other dishes, from boiling tofu soups to gushy blood sausage, cold buckwheat noodles to a wondrous seafood pancake. But they're almost unnecessary considering all the complimentary side dishes (known collectively as panchan) you receive for ordering meat. I counted 10: everything from steamed broccoli slathered in barbecue sauce to chilled caramelized bean sprouts, custard-y tofu blocks to the requisite fiery kim chi, the banquet ending with an icy pine-nut drink in a bowl. Ku Wol San might not allow you to cook your own meat, but with so much waiting to be consumed, why should you care?

KU WOL SAN, 13321 BROOKHURST ST., GARDEN GROVE, (714) 539-8989.


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