‘When they come into the restaurant they feel like its Korea’
For a long time, Korean restaurants in the Sacramento area have been clustered along Folsom Avenue east of Watt, but I’m glad to see Korean establishments opening outside that area. Gangnam Ave., a sizzling and bustling DIY barbecue place on Sunrise, was pointed out to me by a Rancho Cordova reader who first emailed me asking for tips for Rancho restaurants.
Gangnam Ave. – named for the glitzy district of Seoul that may be most familiar from the 2012 hit song – offers all-you-can-eat meat to grill yourself at a relatively modest price: $27.95 at dinner for the full menu. (Kids ages 5 to 10 are charged less.)
For five bucks less, you can get everything except the prime steak, marinated short ribs on the bone, and the Korean cold noodle dishes. Since the short ribs and cold noodles were the best items on the menu, you should pony up. There is a 100-minute time limit on your eating, but it’s pretty hard to eat for longer than an hour and 40 minutes.
The restaurant places a few other common-sense limitations on the all-you-can-eat experience: No to-go boxes; no outside food (I’m not sure why you’d want to bring any in); and there’s a $10 charge if you over-order so severely that you have tons left over. I heard a server telling a customer who questioned the latter guideline that it was to prevent food waste, which seems like a fair enough rule.
I’ve never been to Seoul, so I can’t speak directly to how much Gangnam resembles its namesake neighborhood, but reports indicate the latter is busy, ultramodern and very flash. Gangnam Ave. isn’t fancy, as such, but a projected light show at the entrance has dazzling red-and-green outlines that shape-shift from dancers to horses to sharks to narwhals (delighting all children who entered). Shiny exposed HVAC tubing, powerful exhaust fans, sleek metal tables bathed in lavender-hued light and a polished concrete floor lend the place a modern-industrial look.
Speaking of those fans: They’re positioned precisely over the circular grill tops in the center of each table, and they work. There’s little fug of smoke hanging in the air here, and I didn’t notice the sweetly charred aroma of marinated meat clinging to my clothes, as it often does at DIY grilling places. They are, however, loud: Gangnam Ave. may not be the best place for quiet conversation. It’s noisy, busy and fun, with lots of family parties on my visits.
Of course, you don’t go out for Korean barbecue if you’re not prepared to jump into the experience. You’ll be grilling, you’ll be gnawing meat off bones, and you’ll probably need extra napkins. My favorite of those meats was the marinated short rib on the bone, a classic Korean cut, which was thickly sliced and well-flavored. It’s a rich and fatty cut, with tons of flavor clinging to those crosscut bones.
The bulgogi was less exciting. It’s another familiar cut: thin-sliced marinated meat. Here the flavor of both beef and marinade was underwhelming.
At dinner, first banchan were delivered to our table – small bowls of pickled and spiced and dressed appetizers, most of them vegetables – and we were then asked for three appetizer and three meat choices to get us started. (Appetizers are included on the all-you-can-eat menu.)
The banchan were solid enough but not as varied as I might have hoped, with just one kind of kimchi. The glass noodles, broccoli and marinated tofu skin were all hits at our table, however. There was a better variety on a lunch visit, with some crunchy, chile-spiked pickled cucumbers and few other items. If you’re a vegetarian, enjoy those banchan while you can: they’re among the few vegetable options on the meat-heavy menu, though there are a couple of tofu and kimchi stews.
At lunch, all-you-can-eat is available, but you can also order “tapas” style (a la carte) to grill yourself, which may be a better deal if you’re not a big lunch eater. Fairly large helpings of marinated raw meat to grill are just $6 or so. At lunch one day, I got an order of spicy chicken bulgogi and a bowl of Korean ramen ($8.50) with an egg, plus all those banchan included, and couldn’t finish the two a la carte items. (All you can eat at lunch is $17.95, with a somewhat more limited selection than the dinner menu affords.)
The ramen promised spicy broth but was rather timid in flavor, with pleasant but not very distinctive curly noodles. Better was the chicken bulgogi, which had a flavor that popped more thanks to its brick-red spice paste, yet wasn’t really incendiary.
For appetizers at dinner, we tried out the popcorn chicken, which was batter-fried but light and crunchy, with tenderly cooked and juicy bits of chicken within. They were good with the trio of dipping sauces (hot gojuchang, a soy-based brown sauce with a floating slice of jalapeno, and sesame oil) provided to each diner.
A requested order of lettuce wraps, which incurs a nominal extra charge, never showed up at our table, though we were charged for it. By the time I noticed its absence, we were too full to chase it down. This service misstep was understandable in the busy restaurant, where servers all seemed to be moving at top speed at all times, but were mostly fairly attentive – especially to changing out the grill when it got too encrusted with charred residue.
Deep fried dumplings, similar to gyoza, were not noticeably different from the same type of dumplings anywhere else, which is to say they were pretty good but nothing special.
Back to the meats, we also tried the basic chicken bulgogi, which is better than the beef. Pork belly marinated with soy sauce came in a thick, fatty slab that cooked up to crunchy-edged bliss, with ribbons of chewy meat running through it. It’s perhaps not an everyday treat, but was very good. Another time, I’d be interested in trying more of the pork options, which included curry pork, jowl and pork bulgogi.
Garlic shrimp, presented in the shell, come just four to an order, so you might want more right off the bat. Tender and sweet, they came with little slabs of thick-cut garlic that was an excellent treat on the grill; don’t skip it. Other seafood options include “cajun” shrimp and baby octopus.
If by the time you’ve done all that grilling, you feel a bit hot, never fear: Korean cold noodle bowls can come to the rescue. Available in both plain and spicy varieties, the cold noodles are ultra-thin and slippery, in a tart, delicate, utterly refreshing broth studded with bits of ice.
Thin shavings of cucumber and white radish and a sprinkling of sesame seeds topped the simple soup, which was the ideal antidote to the sizzling fat and heavy flavors of barbecued beef. It might have been my favorite thing I ate at Gangnam Ave., where most of the food is solid and plentiful. I’d also like to put in a plug for the freezer tub of Korean popsicles at the exit, available on the honor system for a dollar a pop in various flavors, including bright green honeydew pops and my fave, a sweet, strong coffee pop with the highly apt brand name Summer Crush. (There’s a box with a slot for your dollar.)
Dessert may be DIY just like the cooking, but that’s a small price to pay for a new favorite coffee ice. Gangnam Ave. isn’t necessarily breaking any new ground, but it offers a solid alternative for Korean BBQ, especially for readers in the Rancho Cordova and Folsom areas.
Gangnam Ave. Korean Barbeque
2216 Sunrise Blvd., Rancho Cordova. 916-840-5645. gangnamavebbq.com
Hours: Noon to 11 p.m. daily
Cuisine type: Korean
Price range: All-you-can-eat meat service at dinner $22.95-$27.95 per person, $17.95 at lunch, with a la carte dishes at lunch $6-12.
Food: Grill-it-yourself meats are the draw here, including excellent short ribs on the bone, pork belly and spicy chicken, just-okay bulgogi and more. Appetizers vary in interest, as does the selection of banchan.
Service: Helpful and attentive, but servers can seem a little harried at busy times as they jet by tables. Most food comes out quickly – though the occasional item got forgotten – and grills are checked and replaced regularly.
Ambiance: Blingy and busy, with a light show that mesmerizes kids (and some grown-ups) projected on the floor at the entrance, lots of TVs, and tons of bustle in a sleek setting.
Accessibility considerations: Plenty of space between tables for navigation, though there can be a bottleneck right at the entrance. The ventilation fans work well, but hot grills and the smoke they generate may pose challenges for some patrons.
Noise levels: Loud, thanks to blaring music and sizzling grills, as well as conversation.
Drinks: Limited selection of beer, soju and soju cocktails, and soft drinks.
Vegetarian options: Almost nonexistent; meat to grill is the main event here.
Allergy and dietary considerations: Menu information is limited; diners with severe allergies should inquire.