Friday, November 6, 2009

Where There's Smoke

If there is any Korean food that is popular on the mainland, it is Korean BBQ.   In fact, that may be the only form of Korean food that people on the mainland are generally familiar with.   Even when I was away at graduate school, there was a Korean BBQ nearby.   I was really bad actually.  There was one class that I had which was a business case study course.   The class was divided in half, during the first half different groups would come up and present their analysis of a classic business case and after the break the professor would lecture about the concepts we were supposed to have learned.   Unfortunately, the professor was just so old and boring that I just couldn't stand listening to him, and the fact that the class was an evening class just made it worse.   So almost every other week, after the first half, my friend Sean and I would skip out of class and go to have dinner at the Korean BBQ.   Given the choice between an exruciatingly boring lecture and some warm inviting bulgolgi, the bulgolgi wins out every time.   It would always aggravate my classmates to no end, especially since my friend and I actually did so well in that class. 

Back at home, we're no stranger to Korean BBQs.   However, they're never given the name Korean BBQ.   Nor are they really called by their Korean name, gogigui.   They're always called yakiniku restaurants.  Of course this is a little bit odd, since yakiniku is a Japanese equivalent, but these are Korean restaurants, not Japanese.   To add further confusing, the kanji for yakiniku, in Chinese reads "siu yuk" (or roast meat).  But siu yuk, is what we call the Chinese roast pork with that nice crispy skin on top.   So a newcomer could easily be confused.   But here in Hawaii, we know that yakiniku places are Korean restaurants.

There are quite a number of yakiniku places here on island.   Just driving along Kapiolani next to Ala Moana, or driving up Keeaumoku, you will find at least a dozen of them.    Ironically one of the nicer yakiniku places, is actually a Japanese chain (although it's Korean food), called Gyu-Kaku.  What sets them apart, is that whereas most yakiniku places use a propane burner, Gyu-Kaku uses coals.   The orange red glow of the coals gives everything a better flavor than using gas.   The only drawback of Gyu-Kaku is their smaller portions (of which you're meant to buy many of), but not-so small prices.   My favorite yakiniku place however, is Camellia Buffet Yakiniku on McCully (across from where McCully Chop Suey used to be).   They also have a place called Yakiniku Camellia on Beretania closer to the University, but I think the McCully location has slightly more variety.

Cold Asile at Camellia Buffet Yakiniku
Camellia is probably the best value you can get eating at a yakiniku place, since it's a buffet.   But don't let the buffet part fool you.  This is not a matter of quantity over quality.  Everything that they have tastes quite fresh and high quality.   The big drawback to most buffets is that the food sits there on the line getting cold.  Things start to congeal.  Things get overcooked.   Things get soggy or wilted.   But at a yakiniku place, this is a completely negated problem.   The only things sitting around are the cold vegetables (kept in refrigeration units), and meats (which are sitting in their marinade getting more flavorful).   Then as you eat, you're cooking directly on the burner, so everything you're eating tastes completely fresh off the grill (because it is).   In this sense, this is probably the best buffet there is.   Ever.   

Marinating Meats at Camellia Buffet Yakiniku
All of Camellia's meats taste fantastic.   That's because they're basically just sitting there all day in their marinade, getting tastier and tastier.   They've got all the standards: chicken, bulgogi (beef), kalbi, spicy pork, and when you come at dinner tri-tip beef steak.   You can throw on garlic, mushrooms, onions, lots of other goodies to enhance the flavor as well.  The worst part about eating steak, or any meat is when it gets cold and the fat starts to congeal in it, making it very unappetizing.  But at a yakiniku place, you basically can take it right off the grill and pop it in your mouth (if you're careful not to burn yourself).   In my opinion, there's pretty much no better way to eat any meat.

Vegetables at Camellia Buffet Yakiniku
Just because they've got tons of meats, doesn't mean that the veggie world gets left behind here.    They've got a huge, supermarket long aisle of veggies.   About half are different varieties of kim chee.  But the other half are yummy seasoned vegetables, like choi sum, cabbage, seaweed, bean sprouts, and a whole slew of others.  They're nice and cold too, so it goes great along with the fresh off the grill meat.    It's like those old McDLT commercials where McDonalds would give you a container that kept the (burger) hot side hot and the (lettuce & tomato) cold side cold.   Only this is even hotter, colder, and fresher as it's not take out.

Kalbi & Bulgolgi on the Burner at Camellia Buffet Yakiniku
My wife's big complaint about going to Camellia is the smoke.   The moment you step through the door, it's like you're walking into a thick haze of smoke.   It's practically like fog.   She says that after you leave all your clothes and your hair smells like you've just escaped from a burning building.    But to me that smell is completely alluring.   It's intoxicating.  Smoke, sizzling meat, fire.   There's something primal and irresistable about it.   They actually did a study and found that women are more attracted to flowery scents (which is why guys should always bring flowers to a woman on a date, even if they just don't see the point).   Guys on the other hand are more attracted to food scents (so if women want to attract guys, they should wear things like vanilla, cinnamon & sugar, orange or other fruity scents).   So I always tell my wife that she smells great after we've gone to eat there.  She thinks I'm daft, but I'm only half-joking.

Spicy Pork on the Burner at Camellia Buffet Yakiniku
Going to Camellia to me is kind of a guy thing.   I mean there's fire.  Mmm, fire.  Grunt.  There's meat.  Mmm, meat.  Grunt grunt.  And if you're so inclined there's soju and Korean beer.  It satisfies all of the basic caveman urgings that guys tend to have.   But actually going to yakiniku can be kind of romantic too.   My wife is, once again, going to think that I'm out of my mind, but sitting around the warmth of the fire at a yakiniku place, kind of reminds me of camp fire at senior camp at Camp Erdman.  My whole class as sitting on log around the fire, and I was sitting there alone when she came and sat down and snuggled next to me (although she still says I sat next to her).   It was the warmest and coziest I felt in my entire life, and that had nothing to do with the camp fire.   Somehow sitting around the fire at a yakiniku reminds me of this (although the warm, glowing coals at Gyu-Kaku are probably better for this than the sizzling, smokey haze at Camellia). 

Fire.   Meat.  Smoke.  Warmth.   As much as you want.  Who cares if you smell like you just escaped from a burning building.   The yakiniku experience is one of my favorite dining options in the world.  It's primal.   It's carnal.   It's simply outrageously delicious.

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