Table-top grills and a palette of traditional side dishes mark a new Korean eatery.
We generally go to restaurants to let someone else do the cooking, though the exceptions to that rule can be memorable. Grilling your own meat at the new Uptown restaurant Little Korea is one example, and here the dynamic between fresh and fermented vegetables, spicy sauces and mellow starch make the experience all the more remarkable.
There are many options at Little Korea that let you off the hook for cooking. Meal-sized soups carry ginseng chicken or dumplings in cloudy broths. Big, sizzling stir-fries mix strands of pork and squid. And lunch specials arrive in many-chambered boxes. But just watch as the waitresses bring all the tools and gear for table top grilling to some other party in the dining room and it becomes clear what you should have ordered.
There’s the gas burner and the fry pan, which looks just like one you have at home. Into this goes the oil, the garlic and, after a moment, a plate of raw meat that’s been stained red with marinade. There it snaps and crackles as bluish garlic-scented plumes lift from the pan — an arrestingly aromatic introduction to the meal. Fresh lettuce, sticky rice and thick soy sauce await for the assembly of little rolls. These are the final products that prove this whole exercise is no mere tableside gimmick. The meat is hot, pungent with sauce and the distance it travels from the pan to your mouth is no more than the length of a chopstick.
Little Korea is a friendly, very casual, family-run restaurant that opened last summer on South Claiborne Avenue. If you’re trying to find it, keep in mind that the restaurant is inside a former Taco Bell that has been impressively renovated on the inside but still looks very much like a Taco Bell while you motor past at 40 mph. I'd wager that people have arrived here on hazy nights fully expecting 7-Layer Burritos. Instead what you find is a delicious taste of Korean cuisine and an interesting glimpse at the culture that created it.
Historically, meat has been scarce on the mountainous Korean peninsula, and that outrageously flavorful grilling technique evolved to make the most of it. Meanwhile, the cuisine has elevated the manipulation of vegetables to an art form. One example is called banchan, which takes in a wide-ranging palette of fermented or pickled sides served before and throughout the meal. Cabbage-based kimchi is the best known, though you might also get a heap of shredded radish, eggplant or mung beans.
Little Korea also serves a few Vietnamese dishes to give people who are unsure about Korean food more reasons to come in and give the place a shake. That approach is actually similar to what Vietnamese restaurants around New Orleans did just a generation ago, serving parallel menus of more-familiar Chinese dishes next to their native cooking to attract a bigger customer base. It says something about the rise of Vietnamese food that spring rolls and pho count as the more mainstream hedge these days. But at this new Korean restaurant, like the Vietnamese restaurants before it, when you order the true pride of the kitchen you get the best show on the table.
3301 S. Claiborne Ave., New Orleans, 504-821-5006