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Korean BBQ Roundup

Kimchi never tasted so good

When we first started going out, I told my boyfriend we should check out my favorite Korean BBQ joint in the city. He - a non-Korean as yet uninitiated in the spicy dishes I had grown up with - was less than enthusiastic. "Kimchi smells like dirty laundry," he said with a crinkle of his nose. At least that's what he remembered from his childhood visits to his Korean friend's house where the mom always seemed to be cooking kimchi soup.

And mind you, when boiled, kimchi - spicy, pickled cabbage traditionally left to ferment in the ground - does stink. When I cook it up myself, the pungent odor lingers for days. Nevertheless, I argued, Korean food is so much more than kimchi. Try it, and you'll see.

And he did. Three years later, he's quite happily a convert. As soon as the panchan - a dozen or so small side dishes that accompany every meal - hits the table, he's digging right into his favorite, and mine: ggakdugi, daikon root usually served in chunks and pickled in chili pepper, garlic, ginger, baby shrimp, sugar and salt.

OK, enough talk about the small stuff. The meat is what everyone raves about, and what keeps people coming back for more. San Francisco is full of Korean BBQ restaurants that serve up well-flavored hunks of marinated beef, pork and chicken, which can be grilled right at your table. The most typical dish is bulgogi: beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil and seeds, rice wine, garlic, sugar, green onions and pepper. The beef short ribs (kalbi) and chicken (dakgui) also come in the same sweetish marinade.

In addition, if you're craving hot pots, spicy soups in clay pots, you'll find plenty of variations. Sautéed vegetable and seafood dishes also pepper most menus. A lot of this stuff is served family style, but a number of dishes are tailored to the individual.

What follows are three Korean BBQ houses that rank high among my set. Most important, all three have the parental seal of approval. When it comes to this subject, mom and dad, both native Koreans, really do know best.

Wooden Charcoal Barbeque House:
What this restaurant lacks in ambiance - bright yellow and green walls pop under the bright lights - it makes up for in intense bursts of flavor and super friendly service. Try the spicy sautéed prawns ($12.95) with vegetables, cooked to perfection: the prawns tender and moist and the onions, mushrooms and peppers still crisp. The tender spicy pork ($13.95), cooked on a grill brought to our table, was perfectly seasoned in a sweet chili paste. Hold off on ordering a hot pot. As is the case at a number of Korean restaurants, sundubu jjigae (a red hot clam and pork stew swimming with kimchi, silken tofu and green onions) was added as a freebie to our meal. And Wooden Charcoal's rendition rivals the best of 'em.

Han Il Kwan Restaurant:
Ousted from its most-favored spot by Wooden Charcoal, Han Il Kwan is still the place I'll go to with my folks for Sunday dinner and with friends wanting their Korean fix. It gets the highest marks for ambiance; wooden partitioned booths and softer lighting make for a more relaxing meal. And it too throws in freebies including sundubu and pindaedok (fried mung bean cakes flavored with leek or green onion, ginger, garlic and salt). Sample the japchae ($11.95), a peppery dish of sautéed crisp-tender vegetables with beef and vermicelli rice noodles. All of the booths have grills built into the tables. Prices for barbequed meats range from $17.95 for the short ribs to $14.95 for the spicy pork.

Jang Soo B.B.Q.:
This restaurant sits in the shadows of Wooden Charcoal and Han Il Kwan. It's got good barbeque ($14.95 - $17.95), but no freebies. And the place is so brightly lit, you almost need sunglasses. But go to Jang Soo on one of those six truly hot days in San Francisco and order the mul nang myon ($8.95), buckwheat noodles in a refreshingly cold and tangy soup sprinkled with slivers of beef and radish and topped with half a boiled egg. A light repast that'll keep you cool and comfortably sated.