It’s hard to overstate how humongous BWON Shabu & BBQ is. Imagine a bowling alley, then take out all the lanes, add tables and dangling exhaust vents, but keep all the flat-screens. It is so huge that if you had to sprint to the restroom, which is located deep in the back, you’d run out of breath before you got there. And if you did make it to the restroom, you’d also find a secret hallway that goes even farther. Follow this path, and soon you’re inside another room that’s actually another restaurant. Yes, that’s right: There’s another restaurant inside this restaurant.
For the record, this “secret” place is a dank and dark Korean bar called Ddoong Ggo. It has a completely different menu and wait staff. And after waiting nearly an hour to be seated at BWON and becoming increasingly “hangry,” I seriously started considering eating there instead.
But whether you belong to a party of eight or two, you know that at BWON, you will wait up to an hour before you get to eat. During busy weekend nights, wait times can quickly become frustrating. It’s because there just aren’t enough busboys. I saw as many unoccupied tables with dirty dishes as occupied ones. At best, the dining room was only operating at half capacity. Seeing this forced me to rethink why I keep going to these DIY shabu-shabus and Korean barbecues. Since I do all the cooking, the cynic in me thought, “Why am I standing around here waiting to effectively rent a tiny kitchen for an hour when I have a full one at home?”
It also made me recall the pivotal scene in Lost In Translation in which Bill Murray tells Scarlett Johansson, “What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?”
But as soon as I was seated, my mood changed. Before me was a table that had not one gas stove, but two. One was for the shabu-shabu pot and the other heated the grates for the barbecue. BWON’s decision to do both represents the next stage in the Korean barbecue arms race: trying to be both simultaneously. On top of that, BWON is also a fully loaded Asian buffet, with sushi and hot dishes in chafing trays.
BWON does all this to differentiate itself not only from a crowded pack, but also from the two Korean barbecue joints that occupied this same space in years past. At first, I relished that I was getting my money’s worth. I’m a fan of both genres, and it was as though a movie theater decided to bring back the double feature.
The meat quality was also top-notch. Whether it was the fat-rimmed slab of prime Angus beef sirloin or the wine-marinated pork belly, every piece I ate was tender and flavorful. And my God, the variety it offered! I sampled so many meats, sauces, dips, vegetables, seafood and fish balls, it would take space I don’t have in this review to account for them all. This was, by the way, independent of the hot foods buffet, which boasted a variety of dishes as vast as any you’d find in Vegas. There were at least two kinds of rice, a noodle dish, five sushi rolls, steamed crawfish and Korean-style deep-fried chicken wings among other hot entrées I never got a chance to touch.
But I didn’t come to BWON for the buffet. I came to consume as much of the Korean barbecue and shabu meats as I could.
And as with all all-you-can-eat Korean barbecues and shabu-shabus, the evening became a contest to recoup the cost of admission. But as time wore on, I found that juggling the two burners was taking away from the experience, especially when I realized my dining partner decided she was full halfway through.
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that, unlike other Korean barbecues, the servers were not obligated to help me manage the grill. Once they dropped off the meats in premeasured boxes, they were done. As a consequence, half of what I roasted turned to cinder, and most of the veggies in my shabu pot turned to mush.
But because the restaurant institutes punitive charges for any food left uncooked or unconsumed, I persevered and ate it all. I left BWON painfully bloated, sweaty from the steam of the shabu pot and reeking of the greasy smoke of the grill. In other words, mission accomplished!
BWON Shabu & BBQ, 1841 W. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 770-0837. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Dinner, $26.95 per person. Beer and wine.
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.