Korean Barbecue 101
Wharo’s authentic flavors are a good introduction to a cuisine that isn’t easy to find by the beach
By Richard Foss (email@example.com)
Korean food isn’t just one of my favorite cuisines, it’s one of my favorite cultural experiences. I enjoy the ceremony of the meal, the distinctive décor, even the traditional music when I can find a place that isn’t playing Asian pop tunes. It feels like a trip to another country, a brief vacation from life in L.A.
When I dine outside Asian neighborhoods I scale back my expectations, expecting fusion dishes, higher prices and blander spicing. After a few dull meals and characterless experiences I stopped visiting local Korean eateries and headed east when the longing for bold flavors was intense.
Hope springs eternal, however, so last week two friends and I found ourselves at the door of Wharo, a Korean barbecue by the corner of Lincoln and Washington boulevards. The place is named after a type of traditional Korean grill, and they boast that they’re the only Westside restaurant of their kind that uses charcoal. There was a hint of smoke in the air when we arrived, though not the dense pall you find at places with poorer ventilation.
We had arrived before 7 p.m. and took advantage of their early special — a two-item combination for $24 each. This includes the banchan, the array of salads that accompanies almost every Korean meal, and it’s a good deal. We ordered marinated short ribs, spicy pork and pork belly, calamari, brisket and mushrooms, plus an order of mandu (the dumplings known in Japan as gyoza).
We then turned to the beverage list, which was remarkable in ways both good and bad. The wine selection was extensive, but the prices were high — a restaurant that can’t find something decent they can
serve for under $13 a glass isn’t trying. More modest prices might encourage people to try wine with Korean food rather than beer, sake or soju. We ordered beer instead. Wharo has a selection that includes Stone IPA as well as the usual light lagers.
I was oddly pleased to see that there were seven dishes on the banchan — even numbers of banchan are unlucky, and the avoidance suggested that the kitchen follows tradition.
The cucumber, bean sprout, and napa cabbage kimchees all had the right balance of spice and pickle with cool natural flavors, and the four non-spicy items hit the right notes. There was also a larger bowl of Western-style green salad with a dressing that seemed to be miso-based, and we nibbled all of them while we people-watched and awaited our food. The decor is modern but has echoes of tradition, and it’s a stylish, relaxing environment.
The dumplings were competent but unexceptional, and while we ate them with pleasure I’d order something different next time. Wharo offers appetizer-sized versions of the seafood or vegetable pancakes called jyun, which looked delicious.
Our meats and mushrooms arrived and it was immediately apparent that they weren’t stinting the quantity — there was all any reasonable person would want to eat.
It was good quality meat, too — which makes a big difference with the brisket and short ribs — and it was delicious and tender when cooked. That took some time, because the grill at our table had a thin wire grate that did not conduct heat to the edges, and our server had set it so it wasn’t very hot. The grill had a gas fire around the edges with charcoal in the middle to add a little flavor, and the smokiness imparted was minimal. I prefer more of the full woody flavor, but that has its downside — at old-school places where the cooking is entirely over charcoal, your clothes and hair reek with smoke by the time you leave.
We cooked some fatty pork belly first to grease the grill, then moved to the other meats. (Koreans usually eat the unmarinated meat first, then the marinated ones that leave a crust of sauce on the grill.) The marinades here were a bit less assertive than the ones at my K-Town favorites, as were the dipping sauces. I missed the salted sesame oil and gochujang (spicy bean paste) based sauces that would have given a little extra kick. Another item that is missing was the thinly sliced daikon radish that can be used to wrap meats, which gives a gently sharp vegetable flavor. These are odd omissions, and I hope the management reconsiders them.
The meats and calamari all met our expectations, and the mushrooms exceeded them. We put the shiitake and brown mushrooms cap-down and waited until we saw liquid boiling up inside, grilled the fat king oyster mushrooms, which are mostly tasty stem, and briefly fried the wispy enokis.
Alternating meats with mushrooms as a palate cleanser is the way to go, and I’ll do that whenever the opportunity
Korea has a dessert tradition of sweet breads, red bean drinks and nut pastries, but they don’t seem to be offered here, and we didn’t really need more calories anyway. It had been a good full meal in a pleasant environment, proof that authentic flavors continue to march toward the beach.
Wharo is a good introduction to Korean barbecue, and the servers are cheerful guides to those who are new to the cuisine. If you have been considering culinary exploration, this may be the place to start.
Wharo 4029 Lincoln Blvd., Marina del Rey (310) 578-7114