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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 20, 2004

Yakiniku lets you cook and choose

By Noelle Chun
Advertiser Staff Writer

You like doing things yourself. You don't ask for directions when you're lost. You wave people away when you fall down the stairs. You like songs such as Kelly Clarkson's "Miss Independent." You point out that there's no "I" in "team," but there is a "me." Yakiniku is the meal for you.

Jung Skyong Kim, Kyong Min Kim and Sung Jung Kim of Seoul, South Korea, sample the fare at Sorabol Korean Restaurant. Meals come with vegetables, rice and a sweet rice drink.

By Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

With yakiniku, you do your own cooking. You choose from various meat selections — marinated ribs, chicken, strip loin — and then cook them on a grill fitted right into the tabletop.

Despite the Japanese name, this style of cuisine actually originates in Korea, where charcoal braziers (p'ungno) were common in homes and restaurants (propane is routinely used now). During the Japanese occupation of Korea, ideas and flavors were exchanged and blended, and the Korean technique got a Japanese name. Yaki means cook; niku means meat. The Korean name is sot bul go-e. In most of America, yakiniku is more commonly referred to as Korean or Asian barbecue.

Yakiniku Mikawon has been at Kapi'olani Boulevard and Atkinson Drive for more than 15 years, but it changed hands in May, and Peter Baik is now the owner. Since that time, Baik, who comes from a family tradition of food service, has renovated the restaurant's interior and gutted the kitchen. The changes include the installation of an up-to-date exhaust system called a "magic jig." When you press a button at your table, shiny foil tubing lowers down just above the charcoal grill and sucks up all the smoke. This way, the only reminder of dinner is in your tummy, not on your clothes.

The restaurant's specialty is wang galbi, ribs seasoned in the style of the Korean town called Su Won. Instead of the soy sauce more traditionally used to marinate Korean meat, the Su Won style incorporates water, salt, sugar, sesame seeds and sesame oil.

"The soy sauce takes all the meat taste out," said Baik. "With us, we just sprinkle a little of the sauce on the meat. That way, you taste more of the meat. If you have shoyu, it hides everything."

Yakiniku is a do-it-yourself meal in which you select and cook your own food right at the table. The cuisine originates in Korea but has taken a Japanese name.
To infuse a grilled flavor into the meat, real charcoal is used instead of gas. Baik says he buys the highest-quality meat and cuts the pieces in about three-inch strips, a little larger than the standard 2à inches. The larger portions and high-grade meat are reflected in the prices here. The wang galbi dinner is $19.95, and the rest of the yakiniku menu ranges from the $16.95 chicken to $38.95 combination plate (suitable for two people). The meals come with rice, the usual array of Korean vegetables, and a cool rice punch, shik hae, that is a common accompaniment for yakiniku.

Sorabol Korean Restaurant spotlights a more traditional Korean yakiniku experience. The restaurant uses the soy sauce marinade for its meat. Meals come with the vegetables, rice and sweet rice drink. The restaurant attracts a diverse group of people including locals, Japanese and Korean visitors and immigrants.

Manager Jay Cho attributes the eatery's 19 years in operation to high-quality meat, the flavors of the food and the restaurant's emphasis on service. "Some people are afraid to go to ethnic restaurants because they don't know how to order," he said, "so we explain everything to them." The full menu is available 24 hours a day and the staff speaks Korean, Japanese and Chinese.

Prices at Sorobol range from the $11.95 dak bul go ki (barbequed chicken) to the $29.95 two-person bul go ki special (marinated rib-eye steak).

Leighton Chong and his family go about once a month. "It's expensive," he said, "but it's very good. It's fun to cook your own meat, and there's a variety on the menu."

The portions are generous at both restaurants, but if you're ravenous, Yakiniku Camellia Restaurant offers unlimited grinding. Unlike most restaurants where you pay for each platter of meat, for $16.75 customers are granted access to Camellia's dinner buffet and the meats stacked there. It's even cheaper if you go for lunch ($11.95). For this very reasonable price, the variety is wide.

Camellia offers five kinds of meat, 18 vegetables, three soups, fruit and Jell-O, among other selections.

The cuts of meat, however, are not as high in quality as in some other restaurants, and the service is minimal. The grills, which quickly get marked with charred sauce and meat juices, aren't routinely switched out for clean ones during the meal, as at other places. Also, on one visit, some plates were less than clean.

Still, the food is tasty and if you've got a big appetite, Camellia is a bargain.

Reach Noelle Chun at 535-2413 or nchun@honoluluadvertiser.com.