Here’s a question that comes up with Eater LA staff quite often: What is the most essential Korean barbecue experience in Los Angeles? Does it have a rustic charm: The billows of smoke filtering in and around ugly ceiling hoods and mixing with sweat and clothes? Maybe some excitable servers pouring soju down a slab of bone marrow into diners’ mouths?
The essential Korean barbecue is the one that best captures the essence of the experience. And in absentia of genuine Korean charcoal, perhaps Korean barbecue’s essence is this: Excellent quality meat, grilled to perfection on a tabletop grill, with the basic condiments and side dishes. If that’s the definition, then the most essential Korean meat experience in the Greater LA area might be in Pasadena, California.
Don’t laugh: The San Gabriel Valley is quickly becoming a Korean grilled meat destination. With Koreatown staples Oo-Kook and Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong already settled into Temple City, and Road to Seoul and Gen Korean BBQ House operating locations in Alhambra, SGV residents have few reasons to brave the drive down the Interstate 110 to Koreatown.
Soh Grill House first opened back in May in Old Pasadena and since its spring opening, Korean barbecue aficionados might actually have a reason to leave Koreatown and make the drive up to the 626.
The Space and Scene
A Korean barbecue in Old Pasadena? What, does it have exposed ceiling fixtures and lush, bright woods and a minimalist, mostly white decor?
Well, yeah. Natural lighting pours in through the windows; at night, it’s an almost austere track lighting that’s just the right brightness to inject the space with understated energy. The restaurant is a serene, and perhaps even gorgeous, departure from the obnoxious dichotomy of either screaming fluorescent lights or dingy “trying-too-hard-to-be-sexy” darkness that typify the genre.
Soh Grill House isn’t shy about having a gorgeous interior, or spacious white four-tops where there’s room for diners to rest their arms. This is a credit (presumably in huge part) to the induction vent-equipped grills. There is no smell of smoke here because the induction vents are so strong that steam and licking flames flow not upward, but outward into the vents. It’s as clean a Korean BBQ experience as one will ever find in the LA area.
From the hanjungsal (pork jowl) to samgyeopsal (pork belly) to the rib-eye steak, beef belly and marinated short rib, all of Soh Grill House’s meats are top-notch. Hanjungsal is the snappy, unctuous little cube reminiscent of Kang Hodong Baekjeong’s best days, and stunningly, it’s the beef belly that’s an able stand-in for chadol baeggi. Usually a greasy, messy affair, the beef belly meat maillardizes on the grill at Soh’s, leaving little crispy golden-brown ribbons of nutty flavor.
Marinade on the house-marinated short rib (galbi) isn’t the typical affair, either. The little morsels of short rib are slathered with minced garlic and green onion and just a whisper of soy, though the resultant effect is mostly beef with burnt garlic. It’s pretty before it cooks, but hardly the restaurant’s best offering.
The prime rib-eye is easily the restaurant’s best offering. It’s every bit USDA prime, speckled with fat, settling down at room temperature while the other meats get their turn on the grill. When the time comes to change the grill and begin cooking the steak, what arrives is not another steel pan, but a cast-iron skillet that’s equipped to give the beastly cut the perfect golden crust it deserves.
Korean BBQ runs into this quandary often: The meats at the upper echelon spots are generally equivalent, the ambiances vary widely, so how can a diner meaningfully differentiate? The answer, in Soh Grill House’s case, is unquestionably the service.
Having a server grill the meat for a table can oftentimes be the most frustrating part of a Korean BBQ experience. They’ll prepare the top quality meats in a hurry, sometimes to maddening, sub-optimal results. Diners and servers will wrestle over tongs, opening up the potential for hurt feelings or confusion, and — worst of all — poorly grilled pork belly or barely grayed beef slices.
Not at Soh’s Grill. The above-mentioned prime rib-eye is left to rest before it gets its initial sear and — for what seems like the first time at a Korean BBQ in Los Angeles — comes up with a mouth-watering golden brown crust.
The server works through the perfectly seared steak with a surgeon’s care, snipping the small connective fat that separates the eye of rib from the rest of the steak, separating the fatty ribeye cap just as it finishes with the initial sear and removing it to the plate for immediate consumption. He cuts the eye of rib against the grain with scissors, only to take perfect, medium-rare strips on a separate plate yet again.
The server’s zeal for detail is mesmerizing. On a cut as fatty as beef belly, none of it burns or gives off that acrid, smoking-oil taste. All that’s left is fully cooked beef with a slightly crunchy strip of perfectly browned fat. The timing is uncanny in its perfection, the Korean BBQ equivalent of Sinatra snapping his fingers to time the off-beat, grilling over gas elevated to a near art form. Not having to grill the meat is one thing. Having someone this skilled to cook it for the table? Worth the price of admission.
The banchan, or complimentary side dishes, at Soh Grill are reportedly handmade every morning (isn’t all banchan technically handmade by someone?), and none of it really stands out. Spinach with sesame oil, bean sprouts with sesame oil, a salad with a sesame vinaigrette — it’s all there to balance out the heft of the meat.
A la carte dishes can be hit-or-miss as well. Kimchi fried rice comes with a perfectly cooked sunny side-up egg, but lacks the fermented punch of a properly aged kimchi. The kalbi tacos seem like a gimmicky distraction until the first bite: A crispy “tortilla” made from what tastes like a Chinese scallion pancake batter gives way to a mound of sweet, perfectly cooked beef. It’s a proper spicy salsa away from making Roy Choi eat his heart out. Seriously.
The tranquil environs, the lack of the Korean BBQ smokiness on one’s clothes and the exceptional service make Soh Grill House diametrically opposed to just about every Korean BBQ restaurant stereotype. It would be disorienting if it weren’t such a comfortable guest experience. The restaurant is a must-try for anyone serious about the genre, if even only once.
Soh Grill House
27 N. Raymond Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91103
Open Wednesday to Monday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Closed Tuesday.