Headed to the Korean barbecue? Try the condiments

Janet's World

September 05, 2010|By Janet Gilbert

Welcome to my first restaurant review column, wherein I will describe an exquisite meal I enjoyed last Sunday evening.

Unfortunately, I really can't tell you the names of any of the dishes I sampled. I can't expound on the origin of the recipes or the inventive things the chef did to change them up. I can say for sure, however, that some of the dishes were made with chicken, some were made with beef and some were made with the relentless, fiery tears of the scorned Goddess of Red Pepper Heaven.

For the second consecutive Sunday night, my family and a friend's family dined at Honey Pig, which has not been spelled backward because it is a sufficiently surprising restaurant name on its own. Honey Pig has intrigued us all for months. It's a Korean barbecue restaurant that is open 24 hours, tucked into a strip shopping center in Howard County. It always seems to be packed with customers. Fresh, garlicky smells emanate from the building. People walk in with big appetites and walk out with their hands unconsciously caressing their big, full … smiles.

The first time we went, I was primarily responsible for ordering, because I knew how to pronounce the authentic Korean dish known as "fried dumplings." Our waitress did not know English very well, but that was no problem, because we weren't there for chit-chat — we were there to grill some meats and test our limits on the International Spicy Scale from "a sip of water would be nice" to "my scalp is melting." We all glanced over our laminated menus and picked random items from the chicken, beef and pork sections. Our waitress grilled these dishes expertly on the hot skillets in the middle of our tables, serving us one course after another with chopsticks so nimbly handled they appeared to be an extension of her fingers.

It was fabulous.

When our same group returned to Honey Pig again this past week, we thought we'd take a more educated approach and learn what, precisely, we were eating and how, specifically, we were supposed to enjoy it. But we had the same waitress, who pointed to the menu for us and indicated some recommendations from the chicken, beef and pork sections. Then she brought the adults four large Korean beers, which helped us to forget our culinary education goals.

Once again — before the main dishes arrived — we were treated to a rainbow of beautifully presented, unidentifiable vegetables in tiny dishes. My husband insists they are to be used as condiments — you add them to a leaf of lettuce with your grilled meat and some rice, roll the whole thing up and enjoy. But because we are all rather unsophisticated, we all dug into these dishes and started sampling. I am especially proud of the waiters and waitresses at Honey Pig, because they managed to continue serving us with straight faces.

Imagine if you sat at a counter at a typical American diner and immediately started digging into the wire basket of packaged jelly rectangles before your toast arrived! Wait a minute — our family routinely does that, too. We are apparently cross-cultural condiment eaters.

All in all, I think the Korean barbecue dinner is similar to the Maryland crab feast: You are encouraged to sit around and talk while you enjoy a unique dining experience — occasionally guzzling a full glass of water because the spices are opening up new sinus cavities that have been slammed shut since 1981.

We will probably go back this Sunday night, too. Maybe I will see you there, and I can help you out with your ordering by saying things like, "Try No. 1 on the flip side, two headings down!"

"What is it?" you might ask.

"Delicious!" I'll say.

Sometimes, that is all you really need to know.

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