The next time you’re in an Asian restaurant (the dine-in kind, where real live Asians not dressed in chef’s whites are sitting around the table, chopsticks in hand, shoveling rice from rice bowls into their mouths), observe the ways Asians eat, the way they set down their chopsticks, the way they pick up items from selected plates at selected times. Asian eating requires a particular kind of decorum—break the law, and you risk a chillier reception than the peaks of Lake Tahoe. The Japanese approach dining this way, and I should know—I grew up in an environment where a Mr. Miyagi look-alike drummed my knuckles every time I forgot to “wax on, wax off.” It’s that strict.
Korean food is no exception to codified law. Taking a deep, meditative breath, I willed my way into Diamond Bar’s Ka Hwa Restaurant, having brushed up on my Korean barbecue etiquette online so I wouldn’t be exiled to oblivion. You see, Korean barbecue isn’t the American hoe-down you’d expect—a mishmash of flavors and textures into a death-defying mess that gets shoveled into your mouth. With Korean ‘cue, you must practice restraint so you don’t get that eyeballs-stuck-in-their-sockets look by the otherwise aloof waitresses. Again, I should know—I’ve received many an evil glare because of my ill-conceived American manners.
Brushing aside any faux paux in Asian food etiquette, I scanned the menu and immediately ordered the lunchtime special of Ssambob Jungsik for $12.99, a veritable feast fit for a samurai (or whatever the Korean warriors of similar girth and stratification are called). My lunch came with a plate of sweet and savory, succulently-grilled beef, raw, leafy greens, seven distinct side dishes (all of which your waitress will refill, provided you follow my instructions below), and a custard-like bean paste soup that feels like I’m eating a bowl of seasoned, solidified tofu rather than the traditional liquid messes you’d get elsewhere.
Getting back to the side dish and leafy greens issue, my research into Korean etiquette informs me that you don’t take the whole mess and create a gigantic burrito filled with rice (what most uneducated eaters would do). Instead, you take a little piece of leaf, ribbed side down, and place pieces of cooked garlic (Koreans consider eating uncooked unclean, not to mention the nasty stench you subjugate your significant other to when consumed raw) and red chili paste into your little mound, and eat with napkin pinned permanently in your lap. The side dishes, or banchan, include spicy kimchi (not so spicy that the fire department is summoned), a lumpy and fluffy whipped potato mound (which, besides the kimchi, I loved best of all the banchan), sautéed spinach, tender steamed baby octopus covered lightly with a spicy sauce (not chewy or overdone the way the Chinese like it), marinated bean sprouts, savory gelatinous squares that surprisingly refreshes with a touch of chili sauce and scallions, and light cucumber and tofu stew with jalapeno peppers. You eat these to your heart’s content alone, and outside of your little Asian burrito. Any other way, and you risk the wrath of angry Korean waitresses bidding you an early adieu.
Other specialties at Ka Hwa include the combinations of raw meats, which you could brave yourself over an open charcoal grill (being careful not to mix the meats on one grill alone), or you could order a Japanese shabu shabu equivalent in which you cook the raw meats in a boiling pot of water, which you’d then dip into various sauces seasoned to your personal tastes. Personally, grill time should be reserved for occasions of grandeur and ceremony with large groups. For the lone diners (like myself), stick with something simple, like the bulgogi or galgi lunch boxes (think Japanese bento boxes). It makes your life much simpler.
Ka Hwa Korean BBQ, 20267 Golden Springs Dr., Diamond Bar, (909) 594-7755. Lunch for one (without drinks), around $15.