For years, Sacramento’s Korean dining options largely were limited to an out-of-the-way stretch of Folsom Boulevard east of Watt and nearby points. That has started to change, and Blue House Korean Restaurant on Howe Avenue, near Cal Expo, offers a closer-in option to central city dwellers.
Blue House issues a direct challenge to the heavy hitter of cook-it-yourself Korean barbecue, Oz – long the local standby for a big, celebratory all-you-can-eat table-grill experience. With sizable main room and additional adjoining spaces, Blue House also is a good choice for large groups, though the wait can get long on busy weekend nights.
A glance at the all-you-can-eat menu clarifies the reason for the crowds. It’s extensive, with more interesting options than those at Oz, such as short-arm octopus, marinated pork rib and ox intestine. I confess: I wasn’t brave enough to try the intestines, but I can vouch for the mini octopus. Though they were disarmingly adorable, with their little heads bobbing during cooking, they also were delicious, small tentacles turning chewy-crisp, with a clean flavor.
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There’s a long lower-priced A menu, which costs $25 per diner, less for kids. An additional $7 buys access to the B menu as well, with higher-end meat choices like rib-eye steak. The choices on the A menu, however, didn’t feel remotely limiting. In addition to more than a dozen meats, they included noodle dishes like japchae – clear “glass” noodles with the savor of sesame oil and vegetables.
Two standbys – bulgogi (sliced marinated beef) and galbi (cross-cut short ribs) were hearty, savory, a bit sweet and very beefy, just what you would expect and excellent when fresh off the grill.
The spicy pepper paste chicken, however, was the biggest standout for me: whole boneless thighs coated with a flavorful chile-rich paste. It was my favorite of the whole menu.
I also enjoyed the finger-thin wedges of pork cheek, though our server tried to warn us off the meat, saying some diners found it too chewy. The trick, he advised, was to cook it longer than you would think. It was chewy, but in a good toothsome way, with the appealing flavor of toasty, sizzling pork fat. The long strips of thin-cut marinated pork belly were less fatty than the average American bacon, to my surprise.
Two dipping sauces – seasoned sesame oil and a garlicky and savory “meat sauce” (as our server referred to it) – come with the barbecue orders, adding flavor and interest to the unseasoned meats. Our server tipped us off to which sauce complemented which meat.
Service was well trained and helpful on all our visits, sometimes to the point of being a bit over-explanatory – not surprising, since the restaurant likely often caters to diners for whom the cook-your-own-food experience is new. I appreciated the detailed explanations when I asked about differences in types of soju, as Blue House stocks several brands of the alcoholic beverage. Other drinks include a basic selection of beer and wine, soft drinks and barley tea (the latter included with every meal on request).
I was less impressed with service toward the end of each of our meals, when servers seemed distracted by the restaurant’s business and lagged on taking our check.
As usual at Korean establishments, banchan (tiny side dishes of appetizers and pickles) precedes all meals. Here, the banchan unfortunately was paltry, with just six little dishes offered, many of them bland. Baby-pink shreds of sweet pickled daikon and sesame-redolent spinach were tasty, but I would much rather have more kinds of kimchi and pickles than the dense scoop of potato salad or flavorless, limp bean sprouts.
The strength of the all-you-can-eat menu was somewhat undercut by many of the regular-menu options, boosted by others. Bulgogi from the lunch menu, cooked in the kitchen and included with a wallet-friendly lunch bento, was candy-sweet and one-dimensional, barely resembling the nuanced flavor of the DIY version. The bento also came with fried dumplings
The fried chicken platter cost just $19, but its size was lordly, enough for probably eight people. Our waiter tried to warn our party of two of how big it was, but we braved the enormous mound of crunch-tastic chicken, which arrived with fries scattered over the top and a bowl of dice-sized pickled daikon chunks on the side.
The chicken, so thickly battered it was often hard to tell the types of pieces, came coated with neon-red spicy sauce. The flaming color of many Korean dishes can sometimes make things look hotter than they taste, and this was no exception. The spice level was modest, offset by sticky sweetness. I would have liked more kick (not to mention some wet wipes for my hands), but it would be a fun option for a big group.
I also wanted more zing in the soft tofu soup I tried, with its pieces of silky bean curd balanced by bubbling red broth. I asked for medium, but it leaned toward mild. Still, the bowlful, enhanced by the choice of dumplings or various meats, was a good way of brightening up a dreary day, and a welcome respite from the heavily meat-focused menu.
Another soup, yukgaejang, also was a success, with shreds of beef brisket, green onion, shredded egg pancake and slippery noodles all mixed in a hearty brick-red broth. Order a bowl if you need some warming up this winter.
The stone pot bibimbap was a hit too, with its rice base turning crunchy over the course of the meal. Bright toppings of vegetables and egg made the dish visually stunning. Less appealing was the over-browned yet limp seafood pancake, which had a whiff of stale oil and lots of eraser-textured squid and shrimp.
Signs at the front counter say that shabu-shabu – a Japanese-style hotpot dish in which diners cook meat and vegetables in bubbling broth – is being added to Blue House’s offerings, but there was no menu or verbal hint that it’s available yet, so I didn’t try this option. I was charmed, however, by a different sign by the host station, pointing to a freezer full of self-serve $2 Popsicles on the way out of the restaurant. Proceeds go to tip the kitchen staff, an inventive and sweet way around tip-sharing restrictions.
Cooking at the table adds to the fun of the meal, making for instant camaraderie and cooperation – unless, of course, your companions are battling for the last slice of short rib. Your clothes probably will need a wash afterward; even though Blue House has a strong ventilation system, the savory smell of grilling meat can linger. That’s worth it, though, for the party atmosphere.
Like many communal-cooking places, Blue House is best for a group, so diners can try a lot of different items. But its lunch specials also offer good savory choices. With its convenient Arden-area location and wide range of options, Blue House is worth a look for Korean barbecue.
Email Kate Washington at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
Blue House Korean Restaurant
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday
Beverage options: Beer, limited wine selection, soju and sake in addition to soft drinks and tea.
Vegetarian friendly: Not very. The focus is meat.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Rather high on busy nights, thanks to the sizzle of grills, but moderate at lunch.
Ambiance: The lights are low but the TVs are bright and the grills are turned up high, with appetizing smoky smells wafting through the place. There’s a warren of back rooms, which means sometimes diners can get seated far from the main action of the dining room – a plus or a minus, depending on your preference.
Sacramento’s options for grill-it-yourself Korean barbecue are few, but Blue House is a worthy entry, good for groups craving meat and a communal cooking experience. Don’t miss the galbi (short ribs) or the spicy pepper paste chicken from the all-you-can-eat menu.
The main event is the DIY all-you-can-eat barbecue meat. Choices are high quality, with a good variety. Off-the-menu options can be uneven, with too-sweet bulgogi and stale-tasting seafood pancake contrasting with flavor-bomb beef noodle soup and party-size spicy fried chicken.
Attentive, occasionally to the point of well-intentioned intrusiveness, and highly knowledgeable about menu options. At busy times service can lag in the latter half of the meal.
At $25 per diner, the all-you-can-eat dinner can be a deal if you come hungry, or pricey if your appetites are more modest. Either way, there’s a dining limit of two hours. Lunch specials are under $15 and menu dishes are reasonably priced.