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[whitespace] Suwon Korean BBQ
Christopher Gardner

Tentacular Cuisine: A wide array of meat, fish and fowl enlivens the buffet tables at Suwon.

Suwon Korean BBQ serves up spicy food that ranks high on the fun-o-meter

By Andrew X. Pham

THERE'S ONLY ONE way to go to a buffet: ravenous. And if it's a Korean barbecue buffet, make that ravenous without restraint. Anything short of that is a waste of time and money.

Korean barbecue ranks up there with Ethiopian and Moroccan dining on the fun-o-meter. Although it doesn't have as much pomp, it makes for by far the most engaging way to eat with a pack of pals. The experience incorporates all the elements needed for a good time. You select your own food, cook it and serve it up anyway you like. The sheer complexity involved in indulgence, Korean style, overwhelms the senses.

Forget the fork-and-knife routine. There are tongs, scissors, forks, knives, spoons, chopsticks and, naturally, fingers. There is no wrong way to devour a Korean barbecue spread, and there is no way to hold back the sensory overload.

Suwon, a newcomer to Milpitas, gears itself for family affairs. Multiple grills at each granite-tiled table accommodate parties with up to 10 hungry mouths. The flamingo-pink cafeteria, trimmed in pine lattices and potted plants, seats roughly 60 around three buffet islands. The place is small but not cramped. Service is good, and most important of all, ventilation is excellent.

Armed with empty plates, we circled the buffet islands like sharks surveying the bounty. On a whim, we dove into the first counter full of Chinese dishes for some spring rolls and chow mein; neither proved worth the effort. At the second table, we heaped up raw meats: bulbogi beef, short-eyed ribs, chicken cutlets, chile pork rump, tripe, octopus and squid.

The last stop was a long one: we filled seven saucers with all the kimchee varieties available, including pickled cabbage, Korean radish, bean sprouts and fried dough squares. It's a conservative selection, considering there are more than 200 types in the Korean repertoire. Suwon lacks the really good stuff--such as raw blue crab, anchovy and fermented soy beans--that stock the tables at fancier places like Palace BBQ Buffet in Sunnyvale.

We passed on the cold soba noodles because they sat uncomfortably close to the raw squid, but we did ladle out some steamed rice and bowls of seaweed soup. Having soup ready is a good idea, due to the likelihood of finding oneself with a chile-singed tongue.

Suwon shreds its lettuce and piles the greens on a plate, making the meal more family-style. But because we believe that the best part about Korean barbecue is eating with our hands, upon our request the waitress brought us a plateful of crisp, blemish-free red leaf lettuce.

There's a secret to eating Korean barbecue. The uninitiated usually move the morsels from the grill to the plate to cool before eating. This time-consuming and challenging approach forces one to watch both the cooling and the cooking food simultaneously.

The key is to prep the salad roll before picking the meat off the burner. Palm a big leaf of lettuce, paint it with some gochu jang (hot fermented chile paste) and denjang paste (fermented soybean) and pile on the rice, a couple pieces of kimchee and perhaps even cloves of raw garlic. Then layer the ensemble with meat hot off the grill. Shape this monstrosity into a giant salad roll that will barely fit into the mouth. Eat promptly while the heat of the meat suffuses the entire roll.

Whichever way it's approached, Korean barbecue brings out the child in everyone. And with Suwon's tasty spread, it is particularly easy to get lost in the fun.

Suwon Korean BBQ
Cuisine: mildly spiced Korean barbecue buffet
Ambiance: family casual
Menu: lunch $7.95, dinner $15.95, children $4.95
Hours: Mon.-Fri. lunch 11am-3pm, dinner 5-10pm; Sat.-Sun. 11:30am-10pm
Address: 260 Abel St., Milpitas
Phone: 408/946-8877

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From the July 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro.

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