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Where There's Smoke

Palace BBQ Buffet
Christopher Gardner

Clearing the Air: Polished copper ventilation ducts keep the air from getting too thick at the Palace BBQ Buffet, where patrons grill their own Korean barbecue meats.

Fiery Korean cuisine emerges from the smoky grills at Palace BBQ Buffet

By Andrew X. Pham

TEN YEARS AGO, I gorged myself at what must have been the first Korean restaurant buffet on the western seaboard. It hunkered down in Los Angeles' K-Town, smack in the middle of the seediest part of the city. Dark and low-slung like a tunnel, the joint smoked--literally. Smoked like a South Dakota smokehouse in hunting season. Smoked until my eyes teared.

I was positively weeping by the time the waitress seated me, but as soon as she took my beer order, I beelined to the buffet counter where five stainless steel tubs of marinated raw meat awaited pillage. I heaped plates of beef ribs on top of plates of pork rump on top of plates of squid, and added to these an even dozen kimchee saucers dripping with hot, pungent, tangy pickled goodies. A Korean crowd packed the house, and my cooking smoke added to theirs. And everyone tucked into his food and ate fiendishly, joyously.

That's what I love about Korean food: a dozen meats, two dozen types of kimchee, fresh lettuce, chile and bean pastes galore--a thousand combinations of flavor and texture. Everyone eats with their hands. And when it comes to Korean barbecue, there is only one rule: Diners should take a post-meal shower to clean up.

Now, even this rule may be ignored at the newly smoking Palace BBQ Buffet. This latest addition to ever-growing El Camino Real may revolutionize the way people see Korean buffets. Palace BBQ Buffet is one of the few restaurants deserving of its name. Perhaps it is the thick glass, the waterfall or the faux Roman columns holding aloft the blue stone textured ceiling, or the 42 colossal ventilation ducts of polished copper hovering over each stone table. Then there are the troops of Korean waitresses patrolling miles of gleaming tiles between the tables.

Most impressive of all are the spreads of food on four gilded brass islands: one for raw meats, one for rice and soups, one for fresh fruits and desserts, and one for kimchee and miscellaneous edibles.

A gluttonous friend joined me to wreak havoc at this buffet. Because a Korean host must lay out enough dishes to cover the board, we--being our own hosts--layered our expanse of polished granite with 15 varieties of kimchee, including pickled mung bean, raw pickled blue crab, chile octopus, cabbage, Korean leek, crunchy muu (Korean radish), raw garlic and fresh chile--a stupefying array of textures and flavors. A basket of crispy lettuce made the layout inviting even though chrysanthemum leaves weren't available.

Long ribs, short ribs, bulgogi beef, chile pork rump, squid, shrimp, marinated gut and five or six other choices made us dizzy with greed; however, the house policy of charging extra for any uneaten portion kept us in line. We brought our plunder back to the table and heaped it on the gas grill. A wonderful aroma of caramelized soy sauce and meat made us giddy with anticipation as we chugged on our 650-milliliter Cash Beer ($5), a mellow and sweet Korean brew.

We palmed fat, unblemished leaves of lettuce, brushed them with some gochu jang (hot fermented chile paste) and denjang (fermented soybean paste), added a few choice bits of kimchee and extra-hot pepper, and topped the assemblies with pieces of seared meat hot off the grill. We rolled them up like cigars and ate them smugly like fat cats, relishing with a child's pleasure the joy of finger food. When we were kids, this was what we envisioned adulthood to be: hoarding food, playing with fire at the table, composing bizarre combinations of tastes with abandon, and eating with our fingers.

Although favorites such as stone pot kimchee soup and hot fish didn't grace this buffet, and the spices were much mellowed to accommodate everyone, the abundance of meticulously presented food and the graceful setting more than compensated for any shortcomings.

Korean food with all the fun and none of the hassle--Palace BBQ Buffet is one place we'll revisit with big appetites.

Palace BBQ Buffet

Address: 1092 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale
Phone: 408/554-9292
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-3pm; dinner 5-10pm; closed Mon.
Cuisine: Mildly spiced Korean barbecue
Ambiance: palatial but casual

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From the July 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro.

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