Monday, July 13, 2009

Woo Lae Oak--Korean BBQ in Schaumburg

Ok, it's actually in Algonquin Rolling Meadows Greater Woodfield, but Mitch spotted this place when he was all drunk, riding in my car on the way back from Finn McCool's one time, and asked me what Korean barbecue's all about. After a brief description, he muttered something like "anything that involves meat and has the word 'barbecue' is alright with me" so when another high school friend came in from Texas for a visit, we looked the place up and figured out that it was Woo Lae Oak.

I couldn't find much online about the place. It's a chain based in Seoul, Korea, with outlets in New York, Beverly Hills, and Tyson's Corners(?). It's quite large and well-appointed, and I think for that reason they do a pretty good business on banquets and meetings--almost everyone else in the place was dressed up; the men were mostly wearing suits and there were quite a few of what looked like business meetings taking place. The four of us were seated around a large, very comfortable booth with a circular table, quickly plied with cold beer and soju, and our modest attire of shorts and t-shirts didn't seem to faze anyone.

I haven't had a whole lot of Korean barbecue, but I was expecting the server to bring a hibachi or some kind of portable charcoal grill to the table. Once we ordered, though, the waiter came over and removed the center portion of the table to reveal a round grill right there, embedded into the table. Cool.

"Yeah, grill in the table... real cool, Ed. Bring me some meat RIGHT NOW."

While the grill's getting hot, they bring you all the panchan, which are different relishes, pickles, and various fish-jerkies and such, and there was some sort of steamed egg custard-like cube served up, which I can't say I enjoyed. There are three essential dipping sauces, which our server encouraged us to use individually, or together. I liked the sesame oil salt best, and used that on almost everything, along with the soy-sauce based one. The three sauces can be seen at the far right of this picture, with chopsticks being dipped into the soy, the uppermost of the three little dishes. The sauces really did a nice job accentuating the flavor of the meat.

Because, basically, it's all about the meat. We ordered a few different kinds of beef, some pork belly, and some shrimp and scallops. I knew to ask for a couple specific things--bulgogi, for example--but some of the stuff we had was just me pointing at the menu randomly. The best one, which I won't even attempt to remember the Korean name for, was rich beef rib meat, cut from the bone into 'fingers' which completely melted when cooked quickly.

The experience was, over all, pretty nice. Our waiter wasn't the most outgoing, but he did a decent job of cooking and serving the offerings, using a scissors to cut neat portions of the various meats and doling them out bite-by-bite, suggesting specific sauces or other panchan to eat with each different item. I wasn't sure if we were going to have to cook our own meat, as is standard in some Korean BBQ places, but there it didn't seem to even be a possibility. Our server never gave us the choice, and whether that's because we weren't Korean and he assumed we wouldn't know what we were doing (he'd have been correct) or that's the standard practice at this place, I can't say.

Among the online reviews, I did read a few cranky criticisms about the waiters not speaking English very well. And while this is probably true, the staff did a fine job of communicating with us, and the menu's translated well enough, so I'm not sure why it's such a big problem.

Oh--good opportunity for a minor rant; what is it with people who get all upset if their server in an authentic (and by that I mean that it's run by people who are cooking and serving their native cuisine) restaurant doesn't speak great English, or they don't have tea or ketchup or whatever it is that person "must" have or they will just absolutely plotz?

People, please get over yourselves. Look, I can appreciate the LEYE-level standard of customer service, appointments, and just general fit and finish of the restaurant, but I don't carry that expectation out into the world of small, family-owned and run restaurants. Why would I?

If you're going to places like that (and you should be) you're going for the food, so forget about assessing the level of service, or focusing on the haphazard, chintzy decor, or the spartan qualities of the bathrooms. Leave your chain-restaurant expectations at home, strap yourself in, and just point to some stuff on the menu. Take a plunge, try something with a head or an eyeball fer crissakes. Order something with tendon, maw, or tripe in it, and allow yourself to be taken out of your comfort zone once in a while. It's just one meal. Really, what's the worst thing that could happen? If it's terrible, you'll have a snack at home later.

The meal at Woo Lae Oak seemed kind of slow, at first, since they could only really cook one or two different things at a time, but the pace actually ended up being something that I really enjoyed about the meal, since getting only a few bites of each item at a time, then waiting for the next course provided a much calmer, more leisurely feel to the evening and I think I probably ate less while not feeling any less full as a result. Plus, it gave us ample time to catch up, which was nice. Probably another reason why this place seems to cater to larger parties.

The one complaint I have is that the in-table grill didn't seem to generate enough heat to really put a good sear on the meat, and because of that, a lot of the stuff seemed to steam more than grill or "barbecue" once the cooking surface was loaded with raw beef, pork, and/or shellfish. Kind of a fatal flaw. I've only been to a couple other Korean barbecue places, but it's my impression that the ones using charcoal are cooking over higher heat and, subesequently, putting out a better-quality end product.

So, bottom line; Woo Lae Oak was nice, but nothing fabulous. It's acceptable Korean barbecue in a fairly luxurious and upscale setting, so it's perhaps a good middle ground for those who want to be adventurous diners without wanting to give up the mainstream-restaurant-level surroundings. Or for those who want the experience but don't want to go all the way into the city to go to somewhere like San Soo Gap San or Hae Woon Dae where you'll end up cooking your own food over live charcoal.

Our tab ended up being about $60/per person, including tax, tip, and quite a few drinks. Plus, we ordered almost all protein items, rather than adding some rice or noodle dishes that would have filled us up a bit more economically, so really, it's not all that expensive, all things considered. Definitely worth a try.

Just make sure you bring your English->Korean dictionary. Or have a couple glasses of soju and muddle through...that's more fun anyway.

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