Still, before I set off to the Lesser Grey North, I'm due to deliver up another photo super post for your perusing pleasure. What's that you ask? Do I have video? Oh yes, sweet pets. There are video tasties in this post for you to feast your eyes on. Try not to get too used to it. I only take them when the subject matter warrants it.
Boasting over 800 locations worldwide, Gyu-Kaku is a Japanese yakiniku chain with ten US locations in California, Hawaii, and New York. Their latest branch just opened in Huntington Beach, California, a few months ago as the part of their initial push to establish a presence on the US mainland. The premise behind Gyu-Kaku is simple. Customers order different cuts of raw meat a la carte and grill the meat to their liking at the table while consuming copious amounts of alcohol. The fact that a good third of their menu consists of alcohol is demonstrative in and of itself.
Derived from the Korean culinary custom of grilling galbi (aka kalbi) at the table, yakiniku contains many similarities to Korean BBQ. Different cuts of raw meat can be ordered in a number of marinades for cooking at the table. In addition, a number of Korean condiments, soups, and side dishes are traditionally offered, although other than kimchi, panchan is noticeably absent from the menu.
While based on Korean BBQ, subtle differences give Japanese yakiniku a flavor all its own. Most obvious is the choice of grilling mediums. Unlike Korean BBQ, where the grilling is done on a gas-heated cast iron or stone plate, the Japanese use a thin metal grill heated by bincho-tan, a hardwood oak charcoal manufactured only in Japan. The use of bincho-tan is highly important to yakiniku. Most gas burners can only reach a max of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why Korean BBQ restaurants rely on stone or cast iron cooking surfaces, since both materials hold and maintain heat for long periods of time and prevent loss of cooking heat as cold, raw items are added. Even then, a little time is usually required to allow the cooking surface to regain lost heat before the next batch of food can be added. In contrast, bincho-tan burns hot at between 1,000 and 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The thin metal grill is only used to hold the food above the flame, allowing for practically unobstructed contact between the meat and the heat, searing in flavor and resulting in quick cooking times. A variable-speed airflow system built into the grill allows the temperature to be controlled to a certain extent.
(Our waiter rotating our bincho-tan for us before cooking.)
This highly efficient heating method doesn't come cheaply. Each bincho-tan brick retails for around $15 USD, and as many as twelve bricks may be required to fuel a table grill. While a single set of bincho-tan bricks can provide over eight hours of cooking time when properly stoked and rotated, that's still a good chunk of change. Yakiniku doesn't come cheap. Each time you sit down to eat, you're not just paying for the food and service, you're also paying for your heat source.
As a side note, bincho-tan is also the traditional fuel of choice for robatayaki restaurants such as Shinsengumi. Meet the Japanese equivalent of wok hei.
Sunday night, I didn't get out of the office until really late. Although I was already beginning to feel the effects of the stomach flu that would incapacitate me on Monday, I still felt hungry at that point and in need of some food. The Gyu-Kaku in Huntington Beach is right next to my office, so it was a logical place to stop for dinner. My partners in crime, all UCI alumni:
Cat - Fiancée, soul mate, and frequent dining companion.
The Shire Nomad - My friend with the bottomless stomach and two hollow legs.
Elonweis - Friend and fellow foodie who introduced me to the wonders of food blogging. She doesn't have a food blog of her own, so I've included her take on our dinner in this review.
The restaurant was half full when we arrived, which wasn't surprising given how late it was on a Sunday night. From earlier, abortive attempts to eat there, I knew that the wait was sometimes as long as 45 minutes on Friday and Saturday nights. One of the benefits of getting there so late was that we were seated immediately.
The decor at the Gyu-Kaku in Huntington Beach is the trendy, modern Asian look that seems so popular with Asian fusion restaurants in Southern California. Dark wooden beams, white walls and pillars, and dangling lights created a contrasting affect that I found artificially Zen. It was pleasant, but a lot like having dinner in a Disney version of "Japanland". Please keep your arms and legs in the palanquin at all times. Oh no, the samurai are attacking! We'll have to make a break for it!
Elonweis: Thing of Amusement - The décor included several aesthetically placed Maneki Neko. Cat noted that one of them was to ward off illness and disease. We decided not to have seafood.
Service was good, although it also contributed to the feeling of being in an amusement park. You could tell that the staff had been rigorously trained in which catch phrases to yell at what times. Hearing that much mangled Japanese was painful. Still, the servers were friendly, dirty dishes didn't stay on the table for too long, and my tea and water glasses were almost always full. The panda was pleased.
To kick us off, the Shire Nomad and I decided to split an order of Ahi Poke Salad ($7.95). It arrived beautifully plated on a bed of assorted seaweed, with a dollop of Western horseradish for dipping, and was absolutely delicious. The sweet, soy and sesame marinade had seeped into each cube of fresh tuna and sliver of onion, bringing them together in perfect harmony. The seaweed was a little bland on its own, but added a nice ocean aroma when eaten with the other ingredients. My only complaint? Compare the serving size to the lemon wedge just beyond it. There's only three lemon wedges worth of fish in there. That's a damn small portion for $7.95, even at a sushi restaurant. I couldn't help but feel a little ripped off.
Elonweis: Chubbypanda had decided to get the Ahi Poke for his appetizer, and it came in a pretty pile on a bed of seaweed (I don't know why they insist on calling it sea vegetables on the menu). The tuna was tender and required minimal chewing. I ended up, for some reason, with the bed of seaweed. They had a nice variety (don't know all the types off the top of my head), including the somewhat gelatinous kind that I don't have an appreciation for. I still ate it all.
Elonweis: I started out with a bowl of kalbi soup for an appetizer. It was perfectly spiced and contained yummy things like kalbi beef, burdock, bean sprouts, spinach, green onions and egg. The beef was a little gristly, but tender. It matched the other textures in the soup very well, though I was a little flustered with the shallow Western soup spoon it came with. The tasties kept slipping off the spoon. Otherwise the presentation was quite pretty. On a random note, I thought it would be better with rice and I was right when the waiter showed up with our bowls.
The soup was richly flavored. Although it lacked the kick of kalbi soup from Korean restaurants, the seasonings seemed quite authentic. At $4.45, I'd order it again in a heartbeat.
Elonweis: Since they were having a %50 off meat product promotion, we ordered a wide sampling of meats which including the atsu-tan, gyu-tan w/ Tokyo onions (read green onions), liver shio, mino miso, harami tare, garlic kalbi, and the Japanese sausage platter. Somewhere in Northern California, my mum is clutching her head and asking me where the vegetables are. But, not to fear mommy dearest! We also had the mushroom medley, enoki mushroom and sweet potato in butter which all came in foil packets. (I know, I know! Not really vegetables....)
Atsu-tan is cow tongue sliced a quarter-inch thick and lightly marinated in a sweet, soy-based sauce. Those of you twitching out there, stop it. This was damn tasty.
Contrary to popular misconception, tongue can actually be very tender when properly prepared, sliced, and cooked at high heat. This makes it an excellent candidate for yakiniku. The grilled atsu-tan were tender, juicy, and very flavorful. Everyone seemed to enjoy it with a little lemon juice, salt, and sesame oil. Still, the $7.95 sticker price seemed a little steep for what you actually got. While I liked the Atsu-tan, I probably wouldn't order it again.
Elonweis: Although the atsu-tan was delicious with a generous squirt of lemon and very fresh, the gyu-tan with green onions stole the show with its flavour. We ended up ordering a second platter.
Gyu-tan is a far thinner cut of cow tongue. Lightly oiled and dusted with salt, this dish was relatively unseasoned compared to the Atsu-tan. The real flavor in the Gyu-tan Negi came from the Negi, which is actually a Japanese variety of Welsh onion more akin to leeks than to green onions. The trick to cooking Gyu-tan Negi is to sear the Gyu-tan on one side, then flip it and place a little bit of Negi on the cooked side while the other side cooks. This keeps the Negi from burning while cooking, but allows its buttery flavor to seep into the meat. The radiant heat from the grill is more than enough to cook and sterilize the Negi. Since both the Gyu-tan and the Negi are sliced very thinly, you'll need to move quickly in order to avoid burning the food.
Here's a funny contradiction. At $7.95, you get less meat with the Gyu-tan Negi than with the Atsu-tan. However, the texture provided by the cut of the meat and the flavor added by the Negi is so wonderful that I would order this again. I just wish you got more bang for your buck.
The Liver Shio was surprisingly mild, despite being delivered soaking in a lurid red sauce. Shio means salt in Japanese, so what we ordered was essentially salted cow liver. Grilling liver is tricky business, since there's a fine line between overcooked and gristly, and undercooked and potentially deadly. I love liver. As far as I was concerned, this dish was the best one of the night. At $5.95 a plate, sign me up for a repeat performance!
Elonweis: Since neither the Shire Nomad nor Cat were interested in the liver, Chubbypanda and I had the whole plate to ourselves. It was very tender, thanks to Chubbypanda's grill expertise. It went especially well with a squirt of lemon and some ponzu. (Yes, I like the citrus.)
(Video of my "grill expertise". Elonweis is a sweetie, but I'm really nothing special when it comes to cooking.)
Here are some tips for grilling meat:
- Try to allow roughly 75% of the cooking to occur on the first side before flipping.
- Keep an eye on the color of the meat. As it cooks, the color will slowly change along the sides. When the color change reaches roughly the 2/3 mark, try flipping the meat.
- If the meat sticks to the grill, do not attempt to peel or force it off. This just means that that side of the meat isn't done yet. On a properly hot grill, the meat will release the metal once it's finished cooking.
- When in doubt, err on the side of overcooking. You'll wish you'd followed this advice when you're counting the floor tiles in your bathroom at 3 AM.
The Mino Miso was cow stomach in a sweet miso marinade. I didn't like this dish at all. For me, its only redeeming feature was that it cost $5.95. The chewiness of the meat put me off, the sweetness was cloying, and the color was unappetizing. I not only wouldn't order it again, I pity the poor cow whose stomach was desecrated in this manner after her death.
Elonweis: The mino miso was interesting, since it's cow stomach I expected it to be chewy though the Shire Nomad didn't like the texture, but the marinade was what threw me off. It was slightly tangy but also very sweet though, it did give the meat a nice reddish orange colour which looked lovely on our black plates. I'm still not sure if I approve.
In the Harami Tare, quarter-inch slices of skirt steak were marinated in Tare, the sweet, soy-based sauce Gyu-Kaku slathered on so much of our food. While I didn't think the Tare added much to the meat, it didn't take anything away from it either.
Elonweis: The harami tare was a total miss, the flavour was lacking in the marinade and it just ended up being grilled meat.
Here's where I need to disagree with Elonweis. While the Harami Tare did end up being just grilled meat, that hardly qualified it as a miss. Dunked in one of the three dipping sauces at the table and eaten with rice, this was an acceptable dish, particularly at $5.95.
The Kalbi Garlic, on the other hand, was an entirely different story. I still can't make up my mind as to whether or not I liked it. All I can say is that when they say "garlic", Gyu-Kaku isn't fooling around. It practically took the top of my head off. Both the Shire Nomad and Elonweis seemed to like this dish very much. Still, at $5.95, it was one of the cheaper items on the menu.
The Sausage Platter was the biggest rip-off of the entire evening. For $6.95, you got two little links of three different types of sausage; Japanese Black Pork, Spicy Black Pork, and Chicken. These sausages weren't even made in, or for, the restaurant. I happen to know of five grocery stores in the area that carry these sausages in bags of twenty for the same price. We ended up getting two orders, since our original thought was to let everyone sample each sausage. However, the whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth.
Once grilled, the sausages were quite tasty, which was to be expected. The company that makes them in Japan is famous for it. It's still not worth $1.25 per link!!! 'Course, I might be a little jaded since Cat and I consider them a staple in our fridge.
The Sweet Potato, Mushroom Medley, and Enoki were delivered in foil packets, which were to steam the contents as the packets were grilled. This is a common BBQ and baking method that I'm familiar with. However, since I wasn't sure how the contents of each packet had been prepared, I decided to follow the waiter's instructions precisely. Unfortunately, while we cooked the packets for two minutes on each side as our waiter instructed, the results were less than satisfactory.
Elonweis: The sweet potato was another failure. It was a bit grainy and the grilling didn't do a thing for it. We could blame the cooks (hahaha), though, really, if you're running a business like this, the things you're offering should be customer proof.
I guess sweet potato packaged with butter just doesn't cook well over direct heat. Although the bits of sweet potato touching the foil were burned and stuck to it, other parts of the potato were grainy, cold, or undercooked. It was an utter disaster. Normally, I would have baked a dish like this or buried it in embers, but that wasn't possible with the bincho-tan.
I did manage to salvage the sweet potato by removing it from the foil packet and carefully grilling it. It tasted a lot better, but still wasn't worth $3.95.
The Mushroom Medley was a disappointing blend of enoki and button mushrooms in soy sauce, dashi, and cooking sake. Cooking it for the recommended time resulted in perfectly cooked enoki and button mushrooms that were still raw and cold. I had to let the open packet simmer over the fire for several more minutes before it was edible. Highly disappointing and not worth the $3.95.
However, the Shire Nomad and Elonweis enjoyed the enoki part of the medley so much that they ordered another packet of just enoki to split. I didn't try it, but according to Elonweis...
Elonweis: The enoki was delicious and very tasty if a bit salty due to the reduction of the soy based sauce during cooking.
Gyu-Kaku - An interesting experience. Most of the food was tasty, but the restaurant received the lowest ROI score I've given yet. I just didn't get enough bang for my buck. If you're interested in trying it, go before their Grand Opening 50%-Off Meat Discount ends at the end of this month. Otherwise, the bill will really sting.
Bill (for four):
Ahi Poke - 7.95
Kalbi Soup Cup - 4.45
Atsu-tan - 7.95
Gyu-tan Negi (2 orders) - 15.90
Liver Shio - 5.95
Mino Miso - 5.95
Steamed Rice (6 @ 1.50) - 9.00
Sausage Platter (2 orders) - 13.90
Mushroom Medley - 4.95
Sweet Potato - 3.95
Harami Tare - 5.95
Kalbi Garlic - 5.95
Enoki - 3.95
Sub-Total - 95.80
Grand Opening 50%-Off Meat Discount - 30.78
Sub-Total After Discount - 65.02
Tax - 5.04
Tip - 10.00
Total - 80.06
7862 Warner Ave., #109
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
(California) Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, West Los Angeles
(Hawaii) Kapiolani, Waikiki
(New York City) East Village, Mid-Town
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