An abundance of high-quality meat, a high concentration of ethnic Koreans and the near-universal appeal of year-round communal grilling has led to LA's Koreatown being not only the Korean BBQ capital of the U.S., but the world. This is the third entry of the Korean Barbecue Chronicles, where Eater looks into what might be the city's best new all-you-can-eat barbecue.
Update, August 16, 2016: Il Cha has removed lobster and kobe beef tartare from its menu and moved to a two-tiered menu with the top option — currently priced at $28.99 — to include duck, lamb chop, ribeye, and marinated/unmarinated short ribs.
In a 2012 interview with Kevin Rose, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk extolled the virtues of reasoning from first principles as opposed to reasoning by analogy. To innovate by analogy in Musk's example is to rely on conventional wisdom — "X works, so I'll just add Y to X." For examples of how analogical reasoning is applied in LA's Korean barbecue scene, look no further than the proliferation of numerous Koreatown grill restaurants all offering virtually the same thing. One restaurant offers rice paper wraps, another offers beef rib exclusively cut across multiple rib bones, another wraps a ribbon of rib meat around a single bone, you get the idea. There isn't much in the way of differentiation.
For an example of reasoning from first principles, there is Il Cha. The restaurant opened earlier this month in the space that once housed all-you-can-eat pioneer Manna, and it banks its future on an admirable ideal: That top-quality, even prime or Kobe-style meats, can be had at an all-you-can-eat inclusive price of $40 (just $30 at lunch). Given this mission, Il Cha is certainly aiming for the stars. Whether it glossed over one too many parts to enter orbit, however, is a different matter altogether.
Space and Scene
The first thing you'll notice is that Il Cha is massive: booths and tables stretch deep, encapsulated in Old World, proto-industrial Korean decor and matching movie posters. The dining areas are split by a massive buffet area containing banchan and — among other bric-a-brac — sushi rolls, jap chae, snow crab and steamed crawfish.
Korean restaurants tend to take artistic license with the adjectives
One weeknight, there's a group of Golden State Warriors fans taking in the game on one of the big screen TVs, the group cheering raucously every time Steph Curry sidesteps on a switch and drills a jumper. Another group looks as if they've just left the office, their ties and shirt-buttons coming looser with each additional round of beer and soju. On Friday night, the crowd tends younger and more boisterous, as a group of foul-mouthed Koreans take turns outdrinking each other.
It's perfectly normal to be skeptical of an all-you-can-eat menu filled with descriptors like "prime" and "Kobe." Korean restaurants tend to take artistic license with the adjectives (and sometimes the nouns) printed on their menus. So you can imagine our shock on our first visit when fat-flecked slivers of kkot sal, or thinly sliced unmarinated short rib, arrive looking every bit USDA prime. On another busy Friday night, the raw kkot sal is so thoroughly saturated with marble that it blushes pink. The meat quality seems to fluctuate based on visit, which isn't necessarily a good thing.
Wang galbi (prime short rib, cut lengthwise) arrives not in a neat ribbon the way you'd find at Chosun Galbee or Park's BBQ, but in a deeply scored chunk still tangentially attached to the bone. The resulting cut is more reminiscent of what's served at places like Kang Hodong Baekjeong and Magal, although a bit more haphazard in execution. On two visits, the quality of the unmarinated short rib is equivalent to or surpasses that of every restaurant named in this paragraph — a tremendous deal given that you can order it as many times as you'd like.
Hanjungsal has that same snappy explosion of pork fat
Their samgyeopsal (thick cut pork belly) is like Park's BBQ's Tokyo ohgyeopsal, except it's all-you-can-eat. Their hanjungsal (unmarinated pork jowl) has that same snappy explosion of pork fat that's celebrated at Kang Hodong Baekjeong, except you don't have to fight over it since you can always just order another serving at no additional cost.
Then, consider the lobster. A one-pound bugger is rendered in twain, the resultant cavity filled with clarified butter and served in a foil dish to poach atop the grill (limit one whole lobster per two diners). On one occasion the meat is a bit salty, on another it's unwelcomely briny. At this price point, though, it's tough to complain that two people are expected to share one tail on this otherwise meatless crustacean.
Sides amount to little more than a distraction at Il Cha, and it's evident in the way they're provided. The banchan-buffet model preserves what's undoubtedly very precious overhead for the restaurant, but it comes at a steep cost — perilla leaves lack that springy, slightly crunchy texture of fresh (though still available in unlimited amounts, a rarity even for AYCE places). Butter lettuce is helplessly wilted. The kimchi lacks any sort of fermented bite, instead exposing a dried out, limp whimper of spiced cabbage that might insult a proper Korean (though they make good grill fodder when there's a little extra room).
The effect of the banchan-buffet is that the overwhelmed-looking servers don't have to refill those mini banchan dishes — they can focus on important things, like meat and beverages. Which is to say nothing of the rest of the offerings, which are an unfocused jumble of lowest-common-denominator tentpoles straight out of the Chinese buffet playbook: Sushi rolls with rice so jacked up on vinegar that they're only visually distinguishable, steamed crawfish, fried chicken wings, chilled snow crab legs and suspiciously short-stranded chow mein, just to name a few.
Service at Il Cha has improved in measured steps since our first visit, where it was a little harried. Peak hours now employ a chaotic symphony of server-by-committee that's surprisingly functional. Experienced all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue patrons know the drill: Flag the servers down early, and request batches of meat at once rather than ordering piecemeal.
Il Cha feels like a restaurant at an early crossroads. At its absolute worst, it's an all-you-can-eat barbecue with inconsistent meat quality, trivial distractions for banchan and a crass, "more-is-more" approach to the all-you-can-eat buffet model that somehow fails to justify its $40 price tag.
As of right now, however, Il Cha is all systems go in the throes of launch. If it remains committed to its first principle of sustaining the high quality of its meats and puts a little more thought into the sides, the restaurant could seriously disrupt the Korean barbecue scene and — even in a space this big — have lines that bend the mind. Without consistent meat quality? It risks being just another middling analogue in a crowded marketplace.
Il Cha 3377 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019