Four rolled-up balls of cold shredded vegetables sit in the bottom of the bowl under a fried egg. Rumor has it there's some beef in there somewhere, but I don't see any. I don't see the advertised rice, either. So I call our Korean-American waitress over for some assistance. Her name is Ann Cho, and her parents own the Green Pine Tree Bar & Grill in the Korean neighborhood on Long Point. I've come here for my first bowl of bibim bap, but things aren't going as expected.
According to Barbara Hansen of the L.A. Times, the Korean dish called bibim bap is the hottest star in Hollywood these days. Bibim means "mixed" and bap means "rice" in Korean, so bibim bap means "rice hash." The version that Hansen describes has hot rice topped with various cold vegetables.
Some L.A. bibim bap emporiums feature as many as 20 choices of ingredients in a salad bar-type arrangement. Korea mountain root vegetables such as toraji and todok are among the authentic and exotic "mix-ins." More common American fare includes cucumber, carrots, sprouts, daikon, mushrooms, zucchini, kimchi and lettuce. The Green Pine Tree version (spelled "bibim bahb") seems to include carrots, zucchini, cucumbers and sprouts, all marinated in a ginger dressing.
Californians love bibim bap because it's light and healthy and available in vegetarian versions. Properly made, it tastes like a fresh rice salad, Hansen reports.
"So where's the rice?" I ask Ann as I peer into the bowl.
"It's right here," she says picking up another bowl that's sitting off to the side. The idea is to dump the bowl of hot sticky rice over the cold vegetables, add some of the fiery Korean pepper paste called kochujang, and then stir it all together with the long-handled spoon, she explains.
"Of course -- everybody knows that," I tell my skeptical dining companions when Ann is out of earshot. "I was just testing her." The three women roll their eyes as they continue cooking Korean barbecue on the little grill in the middle of the table. I've ordered the most expensive family-style barbecue special on the menu. Ann assured me it had the best variety of meats. I should have suspected that when "variety" and "meats" occur that close together in a sentence, tripe, intestines and tongue might be involved.
I myself have nothing against "variety meats," especially when they're sliced thin, highly seasoned and grilled. But my dining companions will have none of them. They conclude that since I made the ordering mistake, they are entitled to eat all the succulent sirloin steak, seasoned finely sliced beef (bulgogi) and delectable boneless marinated short ribs.
The meat is cooked on the gas grill recessed into the middle of the table and then loaded on a romaine leaf, taco-style. There are garlic slivers and pepper slices to grill as well, and the table is crowded with a dozen little bowls of kimchi, pickled seaweed, dried fish, potato salad, hot sauce and other condiments and pickles. It's quite a feast.
With the hot sauce and grilled garlic on top, the bulgogi rolled up in a romaine leaf reminds us of Korean fajitas. And the boneless beef short ribs are a revelation: Short ribs are very fatty, and as the fat cooks out, it leaves the meat incredibly tender.
I'm lagging behind the crowd in the barbecue department, however, since my companions will not allow my tongue, intestines or tripe to touch any of the other meats. They have allotted me a tiny corner of the grill, and they're very strict about keeping my food over there. I must admit, the offal does have a distinctive aroma.
While the women dominate the grill, I turn my attention to the bibim bap. After carefully mixing the ingredients together, I spoon out a healthy portion. The egg yolk combined with the hot sauce and the marinade from the vegetables forms a lovely salad dressing. And the combination of hot rice and cold vegetables creates an exciting contrast. The flavor reminds me a little of a hearty French salad I once ate in a Dordogne farm inn; it featured warm potatoes, bacon and cold salad greens in a mustard vinaigrette with a poached egg on top.
I pass the bibim bap around the table to see what my companions think. Instead of the raves I expected, I get a lot of shrugs. They are completely underwhelmed by the trendy rice dish. I ponder this for a moment. Maybe we aren't giving it a fair test. Perhaps light and healthy bibim bap isn't supposed to be served as a side dish to big honkin' bulgogi tacos. Or with grilled tripe, intestines and tongue, for that matter.
At any rate, the bibim bap gets set aside while the group concentrates on the meat -- or in my case, the meat by-products. Since reviewing Peking Cuisine restaurant ("Forbidden City Food," November 7), I've come to love those chewy little tubes known as intestines. Granted, they're bizarre to look at, but they sure taste great with garlic and chiles. And the thinly sliced tongue is nearly indistinguishable from the bulgogi, if you ask me, except that maybe it's a little more tender. The tripe, on the other hand, is tough, chewy and a little funky. I keep thinking that if I grill it longer, it will get better. I char some of it totally black. Now it tastes tough, chewy, funky and burned.
"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.
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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.