Diners generally go to restaurants to let someone else do the cooking, though the exceptions can be memorable. Grilling your own meat at Little Korea is one example, and here the combinations of fresh and fermented vegetables, spicy sauces and mellow starch make the experience all the more remarkable.
There are many menu options at Little Korea, so diners don't necessarily have to cook. Meal-sized soups carry ginseng chicken or rice cakes and dumplings. Spicy stir fries mix strands of pork and squid tentacles. Lunch specials arrive in many-chambered boxes, each holding components for a multifaceted meal. But just watch as waitresses bring grilling setups to another table and it becomes clear what you should have ordered.
There's the gas burner and the fry pan, just like what you have at home. Into the pan goes oil, garlic and, after a moment, a plate of raw meat (pick the marinated beef over the bland, fatty pork). There it snaps and sizzles, making an arrestingly aromatic introduction to the meal. Fresh romaine, sticky rice and thick soy sauce are provided for the assembly of small hand rolls, the end product that proves the whole exercise is no tableside gimmick. The meat is hot, slicked with garlicky oil, pungent with sauce and no more than a chopstick's length from pan to mouth.
Little Korea is a friendly, casual, family-run restaurant that opened last summer inside a former Taco Bell that was renovated on the inside but still looks very much like a fast food joint when you drive down South Claiborne Avenue at 40 m.p.h.
Historically, meat was scarce on the mountainous Korean peninsula, and this outrageously flavorful grilling technique evolved to make the most of it. The cuisine also has elevated the manipulation of vegetables to an art form. One example is banchan, a wide-ranging palette of fermented or pickled sides served before and during the meal. Spicy, cabbage-based kimchi is the best known, though at Little Korea diners might also get a heap of shredded radish, eggplant or mung beans.
The banchan array makes a single dish seem like a larger meal, but if diners want a proper first course, there are potato croquettes bound with egg and slaw and fairly conventional fried dumplings. Then there's the "seafood pancake," which is like a flattened omelet lashed together with green onions and indistinct chunks of shrimp and squid.
One holdover from the building's fast food past is the multigunned soft drink dispenser in the corner. Diners can alternately get Korean beer, which pairs much better with the spicy cuisine than, say, Sprite, and little tumblers of soju, a mild, vodka-like spirit distilled from sweet potatoes, and similar to Japanese sake.
Little Korea also serves a few Vietnamese staples. That's similar to what Vietnamese restaurants here did a generation ago with parallel menus of Chinese dishes. In both examples, though, choosing the kitchen's true strength promises the best show at the table.