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"How come you didn't eat all the tripe?" Ann asks as she clears the table.
"Too weird," one of my companions tells her.
"I never eat it either," Ann confesses.
"What?" I ask in disbelief.
"I'm strictly into cheeseburgers," she laughs.
The family-style dinner with the "variety meats" is the most typical Korean barbecue, she explains. Maybe next time we should order the more American-friendly No. 2 or No. 3, which feature steak, bulgogi and seafood but no offal, she says.
"And never go out for Korean barbecue on a date," Ann jokes as we leave the restaurant. "Your clothes will smell like smoke and meat all night."
I sniff my date's blouse as we walk to the car. I must admit, I find the lingering aroma of charred beef and garlic very attractive.
The Green Pine Tree Bar & Grill looks a little like a Korean speakeasy. There is a neon-lit sushi bar on one side of the room and a half-dozen dining nooks with semi-secluded tables on the other. The attractive dining room in between features two rows of barbecue tables separated by a room-length divider and a mirrored column. On this visit, our party is seated in one of the private dining areas, which is pleasant enough, except that you can't see what's going on elsewhere in the restaurant.
Dinner at the Green Pine Tree begins with a bowl of Korean miso soup. Unlike the bowl of warm dishwater served at so many Japanese restaurants, the Korean version is seasoned with enough chiles to give it an authoritative snap. While we eat the soup, the table is rapidly covered with the customary dozen tiny bowls of condiments. These vary depending on the season, explains Ann. The kimchi here is excellent: crisp and extremely hot. And I'm fascinated by some of the pickled seaweeds, for which there are no English translations. One has the texture of tiny rubber bands. Another tastes like pickled greens with garlic.
For an appetizer, we order crescent-shaped Korean dumplings, which are good, if a little pasty. On Ann's recommendation, we also try hae-mool pah-jun, which is described on the menu as a "Korean-style pancake with various seafood." The flexible slices taste something like Chicago deep-dish pizza with shrimp, baby squid and clams embedded in the crust.
For the main course, we get bulgogi (spelled "bool gogi" on the Green Pine Tree's menu), but I'm disappointed when the meat comes out already cooked. I'd much rather grill the beef myself and then flip the hot slices right off the grill onto the romaine leaves. Ann explains that if you want to do your own cooking at a grill table, you have to let them know before you're seated, and you must order two or more barbecue items.
We also order plain grilled mackerel and another kind of bibim bap that comes in a stone bowl. In this version, the rice is cooked so that it sticks to the hot stone and you scrape it off the sides into the vegetables.
My two dining partners quickly scarf the succulent seafood pizza and start experimenting with the juicy bulgogi and romaine leaves. They're working their way methodically through the condiments, adding one and then another to their lettuce leaf tacos, comparing notes as they go. Hot sauce and zucchini pickles proves to be a popular combination. I have to beg them to try the stone bowl bibim bap so I can get their comments. This proves pointless, as neither of them has much to say about it.
Here I thought I was going to turn my friends on to the wonderful Korean dish that everybody in Southern California is talking about. But given a choice between sizzling beef cuts slathered in hot sauce or the delicate rice salad, five out of five dining companions opted for the barbecue. And, I must admit, I do too. Bibim bap is tasty all right -- it's just no match for hot bulgogi.
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