Though cook-it-at-the table-yourself Korean restaurants are common in L.A., the few that have popped up here over the years in Bakersfield have not lasted. Probably because of what happened when I visited Kalbi King, the barbecue place and sushi bar that opened earlier this year in the old Sorella location just south of the McDonald’s on White Lane and Gosford.
It was a weekday, about 6:30 p.m. Typical work day, and I had great intentions at ordering the dinner for two for $49 and cooking it right at my table. To my left was a man who had a full setup and he was peacefully turning his beef over, the exhaust fans above evacuating any smoke. It looked so peaceful as he was drinking a beer and it reminded me of my Aches & Pains softball teammates who seem to barbecue if only to chew the fat while drinking beer and occasionally talking about the Dodgers.
But then it seemed like too much work, and the Kalbi menu, which is about on a par with "War and Peace" for length, had so many other tempting choices and looking around the room I saw that the man to my side was the only one ambitious enough to be carefully tending his carne. And I thought it came down to trust. Did I not trust the capable crew in the kitchen, who undoubtedly were specially trained to prepare tasty food?
I broached the topic with my companion, who had been thinking about how far behind we’ve fallen on the “This is Us” episodes and would be willing to eat anything to get home at a decent hour so she could watch some of that before work tomorrow. It’s embarrassing in the workplace if you get too far behind. I blame the invention of DVRs.
Instead we opted to order the spicy chicken bulgogi ($17) and another specialty, the boneless short rib ($24), along with a bottle of a legendary Korean beer, Hite. It’s the top-selling beer in South Korea and is distinctive for a slightly sweeter taste from the use of rice in the brewing process. It would have tasted better had I been barbecuing or had the Dodger playoff game been showing on the big screen above the sushi bar. Instead, we got K-pop music videos, which I have to give them props for. Every other restaurant seems to have sold out to pro sports.
Of course the first course is an assortment of kimchi and kimchi-flavored veggies. We received five and the freshness of everything was superb. Kimchi is growing on me; I understand how addictive that spicy, fermented creation is. I must mention the staff just assumes that if we’re eating there we know everything we need to know about Korean food and no explanation or introduction of the dishes was offered.
Both our entrée choices were from the “Skillet BBQ Grill” part of the menu, which meant they were served on a hot metal plate nestled in a wooden frame. My favorite was my companion’s spicy chicken bulgogi, presented on white, sliced raw onion rings with a garnish of chopped green onion on top, some julienne carrot strips mixed in and white rice on the side. It was a crazy big portion, so even though the prices can seem high (especially in comparison to what you find in L.A.’s Koreatown) you can get a few meals out of this platter. The beef was not as spicy but nearly perfect in taste and tenderness, especially given that short rib meat is never confused with filet mignon. You get all the taste of short rib meat but none of the gristly toughness and it was spiced perfectly to enhance the beefy flavor. I saw my grilling companion next to me look with some regrets at how fast we received our food. We had finished and were leaving and they were still rolling.
Service was solid as the owner is usually out and about helping, and coming on a weekday night is a good idea as our attempts at weekend visits were futile — too crowded. I’d definitely make reservations.
Realistically, the table feasts are social events really more appropriate for larger groups and are priced accordingly, starting at $49 and going up to $139. The amount of food served is huge. Smaller parties would be better off going a la carte, which is $17 to $45. Some customers may be put off by the staff actually putting the meats on the gas/wood grill instead of letting you do it. The wine list is pretty skimpy, too, with a few varietals listed, but no information on the winery.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.