An all-you-can-eat meal at Gen Korean BBQ will cost you about $20. Parties of two are the minimum. Two hours is how much time they allow you to stay. But first, there's a two-hour wait. Gen is currently where everyone in town wants to eat. Or at least it will seem that way while you're outside twiddling your thumbs, checking with the hostess every half-hour, realizing at about the hour-and-forty-five-minute mark that when she said it would take this long, she meant it.
During your extended sentence in this purgatory, you'll begin to review your options and assess the situation. Gen isn't the first Korean barbecue to offer all-you-can-eat (AYCE)—it isn't even the cheapest. The AYCE at Cham Soot Gol and Shik Do Rak are more economical. When your stomach growls, the Wahoo's across the parking lot starts to look good. Do these people waiting along with you know something that you don't? The crowd is predominantly young and college-aged, folks who presumably aren't concerned about putting the kids to bed or getting up early tomorrow. For them, the wait doesn't seem unpleasant; they may as well be outside a club.
Then your name is called. You're ecstatic as you enter a room that glows as blue as if you were boarding the Starship Enterprise; the intoxicating aroma of cooking meats hits you so thick you could draw it apart like a curtain. Airborne and mixing with the breathable air, the smell of atomized fat and protein invigorates; if you weren't so ravenously hungry, you could conceivably inhale deeply and be sated from the fumes. Six square saucers of panchan sit on your table. Among them is kimchi, a scoop of potato salad and marinated bean sprouts. All are gone in seconds. You ask for more so the proteins you're about to grill will have company.
Surveying the single-sheet list of things to sizzle, you know now what you didn't a few minutes ago. Gen may be slightly more expensive than other Korean-barbecue AYCEs, but it offers cuts of Kobe (or at least something that's so well-marbled it passes as the costly breed). The prospect of bankrupting the restaurant with unending orders of the stuff makes your $20 and two-hour investment immediately pay off. The waitress, perhaps under the direction of management to keep the place in the black, suggests you start with the basics: a Black Angus top sirloin, the shaved-thin brisket and the short rib. You agree because—let's face it—you'll say yes to anything at this point.
The top sirloin is rimmed with a white, fatty rind, a sort of self-baster that ensures moistness and is best snipped off with scissors as soon as the steak is done. The brisket, planed as thin as playing cards, melts to opaque flecks, the first pieces you consume after dragging the crisp-edged swatches through salted oil and wrapping them in dduk bo ssam, floppy squares of rice noodle. The short rib, served with its swooping bone, is browned to matchbook squares denser, but less spongy, than the top sirloin.
Then you order the Kobe, doing a little accounting in your head about how much profit the restaurant loses every time you do so. You discover quickly, however, that while more forgiving when overcooked, the difference between the Kobe version of the brisket and the Black Angus is nominal. With that explored, you encounter the beef belly, strips of what's essentially beef bacon, striped with the same white fat, but a crimson flesh instead of pink. It ripples and sputters as the pork belly does, and when you eat one, you swear you can hear your LDL level clack one notch upward. Later, you move on to the Hawaiian steak, perhaps the second best cut of meat at Gen. Its marinade coalesces slowly into syrup, then a shiny, sticky glaze that renders the use of any dipping sauce moot.
There are 22 choices of animal protein, and few order the chicken, which has three variants, and even fewer still the vegetables. You will find yourself gravitating toward anything that comes from the cow or hog, ignoring the signals that you were already full a half-hour ago. At Gen, the tendency to overeat is just as certain as the wait is long. And when you walk out with a toothpick in your mouth, drunk on beef and reeking of grill smoke, you'll know why those still waiting outside look upon you with a mix of jealousy and delirious anticipation.
This review appeared in print as “Meat Me In Tustin: The wait is long, but the rewards are great at Gen Korean BBQ.”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.