Monday, August 9, 2010

Smokin'!


During the 1920s, Los Angeles west of Downtown was the place to be. The stretch of Wilshire Boulevard west of Westlake Park was developed with fine hotels and high-rise apartment houses with names like The Windsor, The Langham, The Asbury and other names evoking the aristocracy of Olde England. Hollywood elites such as Norma Talmadge and Gloria Swanson lived in fine apartments, and opulent movie palaces like the Westlake showed first run films. This neighborhood sported the famous Brown Derby restaurant, and the elegant Ambassador Hotel, with its swank nightclub, the Coconut Grove.

But by the early 1960s, the expansion of L.A. and a changing economy brought decline to the neighborhood. The Ambassador Hotel, still remembered for its elegance, gained a different place in cultural history in 1968 when Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in its kitchen after winning the California Presidential primary election. By1989 the once elegant hotel had closed.

At the same time, U.S. immigration law changes in 1965 brought millions of Korean immigrants to Los Angeles. The neighborhood, with its declining real estate values, became an affordable place to settle. By 1974, there were some 70,000 people of Korean descent living in what was now known as Koreatown.

I don't know when Soot Bull Jeep opened but it sure looks like it's been around for a long time. According to the City Directories in the Los Angeles Public Library, it used to be Joe and Nino's Pizza Place in the 1960s. But today, Soot Bull Jeep, as its sign says, is known as a natural charcoal Korean barbecue house.

There's nothing fancy about the place. It looks like a cheap diner. You walk in off the street into a dark room with dim fluorescent lights, with formica-topped tables, each set beneath huge steel exhaust flues. The walls are covered with a textured siding that looks like fake red bricks, and the floor with reddish ceramic tiles. The tables are set with metal chairs upholstered in red vinyl. There's a haze in the air, and the scent of charcoal smoke.

As you walk in, a waitress wearing a white uniform with a black apron motions you to a table. Each table has an open grill set in the center. She turns on the gas and shovels a few lumps of charcoal onto the fire, then sets a grill atop the flame. She tosses a plastic folder with a single page menu in front of you. While you consider the offerings, she brings chopsticks wrapped in paper, a handful of small plastic dishes, and a couple of plastic glasses with ice cubes in them.

No - don't drink the ice water. It's there for a reason.

Order a big bottle of Korean beer - OB or Hite - instead. By now, the charcoal is glowing, and flames are flickering in the grill. The waitress comes back and asks what you want.

Marinated short ribs are a pretty good choice. You can also get other cuts of beef, including tender sliced beef tongue. You can also get marinated pork, or chicken, or seafood such as shrimp or eel. For about $19 you get a large platter of protein. We were a party of three - one order of short ribs and one of marinated pork was plenty for us.

A whole array of small dishes appear at the table. There's a bowl of clear broth with something white and starchy floating in it. There's another bowl with slivered scallions in a sesame-flavored oily dressing. Other bowls hold a pulverized pinky bean paste, pickled cabbage in deep red chile, threads of pickled daikon and stir-fried spinach in sesame oil. Whole garlic cloves. Dark liquid soy sauce. Cucumbers in a pale orange liquid. There's also a small steel bowl filled with short-grained rice, and a plate with fresh lettuce leaves.

The waitress brings the platter of meat and, with a pair of long steel tongs, quickly lays it out on the grill.

If it looks like you know what you're doing, she leaves you alone. If she thinks you don't get it, she'll come back and grab the tongs, flipping the meat when it's ready and even telling you how to eat it. She also carries a pair of heavy-duty shears, which she'll use to clip and snip large pieces into bite-size bits. Our short ribs included the boneless slices of beef plus two chunks of ribs - after we ate the delicious slices our waitress returned to snip the membrane from the bony pieces and pull the chewy meat from the bones.

The little dishes are called banchan or panchan. They're intended as accompaniments to a meal. They range from condiments to pickles, to vegetables, tofu, and sometimes noodles.

The marinated pork was spicy and tender, and left a burning tingle in the mouth. The starchy rice and pickled vegetables were a nice cooling contrast. The typical practice is to tear off pieces of lettuce leaf and wrap the morsel of meat with a bit of pickle or smear of bean paste to eat by hand.

You have to be vigilant and watch your food cooking - don't overcook it or the waitress will come by and flip it for you. Use the tongs to turn the meat instead of your chopsticks - you don't want to flip raw meat with your chopsticks and then put them in your mouth later.

As you sit there, the smoke rises, despite the pull of the heavy duty exhaust fans that thrum and roar above you. The smell of charcoal suffuses your clothes and hair, especially if the place is busy and all tables are cooking at once. You may even catch a few flying sparks - don't dress in your finest when you come here. If drippings or a fatty, grill-stuck morsel catch fire, the waitress quickly douses the flame with a strategically-placed ice cube - see, that's what that glass of ice is for!
This is good late-night food, also good hangover food, with strong flavors and hot spices. Eating here brings out some wild primal urge to cook bloody meat over a roaring fire. It's not for the faint of heart. Unlike the glossier Korean barbecue joints where the grill is gas-fueled, clean and safety sealed, Soot Bull Jeep has a touch of danger that appeals to your inner cave-man.
When you're finished and pay your tab, the waitress sends you off with a stick of melon-flavored gum to clear your palate.
Alley-Oop never had it this good.

5 comments:

Cheri @ Blog This Mom!® said...

I love that area of town . . . and I definitely want to try this Soot Bull Jeep and some melon-flavored gum!

Gilly said...

Amazing! It sounds so very foreign to me, maybe in London some savvy person would know, but I'm sure I would find tastes I never knew existed!

Deja Pseu said...

Oh that sounds fabulous! I've had Korean BBQ, but not where you cook your own. Sounds like this would be best with a group, so you can try a few different meats.

Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

Oh my...it looks so good, but it also looks like a place I would want to go with someone who had been before. I might be over my head in this place!

Ellen Bloom said...

Ahhh...LOVE the Mid-Wilshire section of L.A. My first wedding was at the Ambassador Hotel, many, many moons ago!

Always wanted to go to Soot Bull Jeep, but never have. Now, after reading your great review, I'll definitely visit!