I thought I had Korean barbecues all figured out, that I’ve seen it all. Last year, as I ate at Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong in Buena Park, I discovered a new type of cooking surface, on which the melting fat could dribble into a well of beaten egg and turn into the greatest breakfast scramble on Earth. It had me convinced I’d witnessed the best and possibly the last Korean-barbecue innovation I’ll ever see. “What more could there be?” I thought at the time. “There couldn’t possibly be anything that’s better than that.”
But after eating at Eight Korean BBQ, I realized that Korean barbecue is still a vast frontier with unlimited opportunities for the new. I say this because the meal I had was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. First of all, the restaurant takes its name from its main attraction: a set meal that comes with eight different flavors of pork belly.
This is the “Combo A.” Though there was a myriad of other options on the menu, including premium cuts of beef and pork belly meticulously sliced and preened into a flower, everyone I saw ordered the Combo A. Also, this month, amid news that bacon supplies are dwindling and prices are climbing, Eight Korean BBQ is doing the opposite of what you’d expect: It’s offering a discount on its pork belly feast. Until the end of February, the restaurant is actually slashing its regular price for the meal by 10 percent.
This makes it even more of a bargain since its original price of $54.99 (as of this writing) is already a reasonable rate for Korean barbecue. The meal features eight thick pork belly slices—each one coiled and spaced out on a specially designed wooden paddle—and includes a big bowl of salad, infinitely refillable side dishes, a huge seafood stew with crab, and kimchi fried rice that’s cooked tableside. One Combo A can and will easily feed three people.
I saw this combo being ordered at table after table, all equipped with not one, but two gas burners—something else that distinguishes Eight from single-stove Korean barbecues. One burner heats a flat, rectangular griddle set with the same tilt as a George Foreman; the other burner simmers the stew pot. It’s one of many innovations in a restaurant that clearly has its design completely thought through. That griddle, for instance, is that particular shape because pork belly is nothing if not long and slender. And the stools? They turned out to be not only seats, but also storage areas, with the top coming off to reveal space in which to put away purses and jackets. And when I asked for chopsticks, spoons and napkins, our server told us they were all in a drawer hidden underneath our table. How convenient!
But perhaps the most endearing thing about Eight is that it’s a full-service Korean barbecue. This meant we didn’t actually do our own cooking. Our assigned server was there from the beginning and stuck with us to the end. She started by greasing the griddle with a white cube of fat, then grilling pieces of tofu. When the tofu blocks took on some color, she piled them on top of a mountain of kimchi and sprouts that she strategically placed earlier at the lower end of the tilted surface. Later, since they were essentially being fried from the hot pork-fat run-off, the kimchi and sprouts turned crisp and sweet.
Our server also refilled the three panchan dishes as much as we wanted, which included a canary-yellow potato salad that again proves no one does potato salad better than Koreans. Most important of all, she handled all aspects of the pork belly preparation. She unfurled them four at a time onto the searing surface. She checked on them constantly until they rendered to just slightly crisp. And when they did, she snipped them with scissors into bite-sized pieces and invited us to eat them while they were still rippling hot.
As for the eight different pork belly marinades, some—such as the red wine and black sesame—contributed sweetness and earthiness. But the truth is nothing can really improve upon a just-grilled piece of fat-gushing pork wrapped inside thinly sliced daikon and dipped in salt.
The kimchi fried rice that our server tossed together in the second burner with what remained of our seafood stew came close. After she stir-fried the rice, she flattened the mound to develop a bottom crust. She then finished it with a sprinkle of grated mozzarella. The cheese melted to create a gooey pizza-fried-rice hybrid that I’ve not seen anywhere but here, which tells me that when it comes to Korean-barbecue innovations, we are still in its Golden Age.
Eight Korean BBQ, 6681 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 522-0888; 8koreanbbq.com. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $25-$60, food only. Beer, wine and soju.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.