The world of Korean food is exciting, sophisticated, nuanced and, to the uninitiated food adventurer, absolutely mesmerizing.
Visit any of the excellent Korean restaurants in the Sacramento area and you’ll see what I mean. Plates clink. Metallic bowls clang. Hot pots bubble and steam. Foods with all kinds of colors find their way to the table. There’s laughing and talking and eating, and everything revolves around the social experience of sharing a meal.
If you’re an outsider looking in, this can seem daunting. To make matters more confusing, there’s often little agreement about the translations and spellings of food terms from Korean to English. But if you’re looking to embrace some of this Korean approach to food, barbecue is a good starting point, for everyone speaks the international language of fire and smoke and sizzle.
In Sacramento, Oz Korean BBQ is known as the go-to destination for this experience. It opened in 2004 on Bradshaw Road, and was the brainchild of Young Kim, who had a culinary background in Korea, and her husband, Jong, who was an accounting professor at California State University, Sacramento. It took a few years for the place to catch on. One of the biggest hurdles was just getting people through the door to give the food a chance. Once the business took off, Jong retired as a professor to focus on the restaurant.
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“The primary food we serve is beef, chicken and pork, and those are meats that most people are comfortable with,” said Peter Kim, the couple’s 28-year-old son. He holds an economics degree from UC Davis and oversaw the design and build-out of Oz’s Elk Grove location, which opened in December 2013. As general manager for both restaurants, he runs the day-to-day operations.
If you’re in the early stages of your dining adventures, think of Oz as Korean Food 101, with only touches of the complexity and variety that awaits at other Korean restaurants in the area, such as Pine Tree House, Sa Rang Bang and YD House.
By now, the Kim family has the concept completely dialed in, so much so that on weekends it is not unusual to spend up to two hours waiting for a table. (Reservations can be made for parties of six or more, so going with friends or family is the best option.)
Here’s how it works. A host shows you to your table, where a built-in grill is the centerpiece. Another employee lights the grill. Then a waiter takes your order from a menu that includes plenty of meat, some of it drenched in sauce and at least one that is quite spicy. There are also onions, peppers and mushrooms for grilling. Rice is eaten alongside the food you cook on the barbecue.
The biggest draw at Oz is the all-you-can-eat option, which is available Monday to Thursday. The price goes up from $17.99 to $20.99 at 4 p.m. until closing at 10 p.m. On Friday, Saturday and holidays, the price is $21.99 all day.
If you’re not a big eater, you’re better off ordering from the entrees and appetizers section of the menu at the Bradshaw Road location, which includes the famous Korean comfort food, bibimbap (a bowl of steamed rice with thinly sliced beef, served with an egg, along with daikon radish and spinach). The Elk Grove location focuses more heavily on all-you-can-eat, with lighter bento box options available only for lunch.
But the true Oz experience is at the grill, and this is where a newcomer can get a sense of the foodie experience of communal cooking, eating and sharing that is an integral component of Korean culture.
“The style of the barbecue really intertwines with the interactive nature of dining,” said Peter Kim. “Everyone gathers around a small grill, and you are sharing a neutral cooking zone. You’re all deciding together what to order and what to eat.”
The rules for all-you-can-eat are simple. You may order a maximum of four items for the table at one time. We did that during a recent visit, and within minutes, the raw meats and onions were sizzling on the hot grill, the fire dancing below. When the four of us cooked and ate the meat and vegetables, which took 15-20 minutes, we ordered more. Servers also provide a selection of banchan, those famed little dishes of fermented foods, including kimchi (spicy fermented napa cabbage).
Over each table is a large commercial exhaust system. Still, be prepared to smell like grilled meats by the time you head for the exit.
We decided to cook the meats in the order they appeared on the menu so we could compare notes on what we liked best and order more if we were still hungry. The first three items include the word “galbi,” a reference to beef short ribs. One comes with the bone in (rancho galbi), the next is the marinated boneless version (galbi), and the third is served without marinade (saeng galbi).
The meat is all graded USDA prime, according to the menu, and there was an abundance of marbling, translating to plenty of flavor. The plain beef may be too plain for its own good, while the very tasty spicy pork could prove too hot for some palates.
We cooked and ate and talked. It was fun and captivating, at least at first.
But this way of eating is not for everyone. I tend to suffer from a culinary version of ADD when it comes to cooking my own food at a restaurant, whether it’s traditional fondue, shabu shabu (Japanese fondue cooked in hot broth) or Korean barbecue. To make the food eminently cookable by amateurs and experts alike, it must be thinly sliced and rather straightforward in presentation. Despite the exotic-sounding names and gentle tang and saltiness of the marinades that distinguish it from American barbecue, there just wasn’t enough happening to hold my interest.
Sure, I was stuffing my face and keeping an eye on my meat on the grill and fighting the occasional wayward wafting of smoke, but I ran out of steam before my stomach ran out of room. I loved the short ribs – for a time. The grilled bell peppers were fun to get charred and tender. And the spicy pork was terrific with one of the four beers available on draft. Two-thirds into dinner, however, I had gone from mesmerized to meh.
If you’re a hearty meat eater and avid grilling aficionado, this may be your kind of place. If all-you-can-eat is your thing, you’ll need a healthy dose of patience before you cook long enough to get full enough.
But if straightforward simplicity doesn’t light your fire, and you’ve graduated from all-you-can-eat fare, focusing on the communal style of dining – and the camaraderie at your table – is your best bet when visiting Oz.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. On Twitter, @Blarob.
Oz Korean BBQ (original location)
3343 Bradshaw Road
(Visit website for details about Elk Grove location.)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Beverage options: Full bar; small selection of beer and wine
Vegetarian friendly: Not recommended
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise level: Lively but manageable
Ambiance: Interactive feel at the table, but diners don’t necessarily get that communal connection with nearby tables.
All you can cook and eat, with a gently exotic Korean twist. The food offerings are solid and flavorful, and many will enjoy the interactive nature of cooking over fire. But some will find the DIY concept a bit too straightforward to hold their interest.
The meat is of good quality and presented at the table raw. While there is chicken, beef and either a spicy or sweet pork option, it all tends to run together, and the flavor distinctions lack nuance. Still, there is enough good eating to appeal to plenty of folks.
Servers are well trained and helpful, but like us, our server during one visit lost a little interest in our dinner as the evening wore on and forgot to refill plates we had requested.
Get really full and have some fun while cooking your own food. For around $20, not including drinks and dessert, it’s a solid deal.