Wharo Korean Barbecue
4029 Lincoln Boulevard (near Washington)
Marina del Rey, CA 90292
Wharo is a fairly new Korean restaurant in Marina del Rey, which is so much closer than Koreatown.
According to google maps, the intersection of Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, what I would call the “Heart of K-town,” is 12.6 miles east of me, and would take 17 minutes, which, if I do the math correctly (17 minus 12) is only five minutes longer than the drive-time to Wharo in Marina del Rey. The difference is five minutes.
So, why, oh why, does it seem like Koreatown is al the way out in the Inland Empire when, according to google maps, which can never be disputed because it’s google for God’s sake, it only takes five minutes longer than going to the Marina?! Why, google maps, why?!?!
It is the Illusion of the 405.
The 405 freeway is an eight-lane boundary between the Westside and the rest of the United States. Some may say that Westwood and even Beverly Hills are considered “westside,” but they are *ahem* east of the 405, and for a wesssssiiiiiiider-for-lifer like myself, anything east of the 405 freeway border is basically Nevada. It has absolutely nothing to do with distance or with drive-time and everything to do with perception.
Lucy, lemme 'splain you.
There is nothing east of the 405 that one cannot get on the westside, except for maybe Pink’s Hotdogs, which aren’t that good anyway and dim sum, but sometimes you live with sacrifice. Therefore, the westside feels like its own self-contained country because there is a Whole Foods Market and a Trader Joe’s here. If you cross the 405 border, you need a passport to come back. Or at least, two forms of valid ID.
Physically, the 405 is a very wide freeway, so the idea of crossing it conjures images of, other than aforementioned border patrol...Frogger. Obviously, I am not unprotected, though one would wonder how protected I truly am in my mechanically reliable but bodily flimsy car. Obviously, I am not a frog. Obviously, there is an overpass and one does not physically cut across the 28 lanes of the 405 freeway. But still. Frogger. *splat*
The Illusion of the 405 freeway is not only about the 405 freeway as a border. It also has to do with the idea of “freeway,” which by itself is a stupid word because there is nothing “free” about entanglement within the snares of 24-rush-hour traffic, and the feeling of entrapment in a so-called diamond lane.
Using any freeway seems to imply that you are going somewhere far because if it’s in the neighborhood, you use surface streets, and if it’s only three blocks away, you *blush* still use surface streets. When I used to live in Cincinnati, Ohio, it was always faster to “hop onto the freeway” and go two exits north to Blue Ash than to get to the same place via surface streets like Montgomery. In LA, first of all, there is no such thing as “hopping” on to the freeway (do not use the “hopping” argument against me re: Frogger. That point has been made and is now closed.) And if, by some lucky failure of the freeway ramp meter you actually do get to “hop on the freeway,” there is freeway-widening construction that causes more congestion problems now than it will ever solve in the future.
My main causeway is Wilshire, so any interaction with the 405, whether it is crossing over it like an amphibian, or getting onto it, takes the better part of both one hour and one’s sanity. The same applies for the 405 freeway access at either point directly north or south of Wilshire Boulevard. At Sunset Boulevard to the north, you are fighting either oversized luxury SUV carpools filled with pre-pubescent private school girls on their way to lacrosse practice or compact-sized luxury sports cars filled with UCLA students who still live at home with their parents in Bel-Air. Santa Monica Boulevard to the south is just plain nasty. Spine-tingling (in a bad way, not a sexy way), hair-rising, jaw-grinding, finger-flipping nasty.
To get to Wharo, I do not need to cross the 405 border, so it feels closer.
To get to Wharo, I do not have to use the 405 freeway, so it feels closer.
I can get to Marina del Rey via surface streets like Wilshire then Barrington, or Bundy or even go so far west as Lincoln. Yes, at the right time of day, it could be infinitely faster to travel on the 405 south to get to Marina del Rey, but I don’t have to be the one to remind us that “the right time” on the 405 is a mere 12-minute period that varies every day, though it usually falls some time between 3 and 4 am.
Rachel (yes, that Rachel, she of the Disco Polka) and I met at Wharo because Korean food is better than Mexican food, and Marina del Rey is better (as per above ‘splanation) than K-town.
Up until the moment you actually step though its front door, everything about Wharo’s setting and surroundings – location at the southern-most end of a small strip mall on Lincoln Boulevard, a sandwich-board sign on the sidewalk, impossibly tight parking – makes you think you’re going to a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl. However, Wharo’s sleek-ish, modernized Asian interior decor belies its exterior and any preconceived notions of typical Korean barbecue restaurants.
space is not huge. There is a tiny waiting area in the front from which you can see the quieter, darker half of the restaurant with regular-sized tables for four to six people, and the louder, brighter, showier half of the restaurant on the opposite side. This brighter side is what I will call the “metro room” because you have to be comfortable with yourself. The metro room is fully exposed to the parking lot of the strip mall through enormous sheets of glass, which not only force you to exhibitionistically display your skills with the grills to any passing barbecue voyeurs, but also lets all forms of light from the outside, whether headlights or classy neon lights from neighboring establishments, filter into the metro room, creating a spotlight within this fishbowl. If you sit in the metro room, you are also dining with at least 10 strangers because rather than having multiple individual tables, there is one giant community table with grills built into the tabletop at regular intervals around the edge. You have to be okay with sharing. And maybe even *gasp* socializing.
Rachel and I chose to dine in the metro room because we're cool like that, and right away, we decided we needed a drink.
Wharo, in its upscale-ishness, has a drinks list that offers wine, sake, soju, and the very of-the-moment saketini-like cocktails. Most of the time sake cocktails are, how you might call? Lame. So we ordered a bottle of straight soju, which is very wife-beater-wearing Korean man classy. I have tried the straight soju out of the green bottle which I believe is called Chamisul in Korean and translates to Engrish as "rubbing alcohol." We went with Behk Se Ju because I had never tried it, and it is called "herbal" which sounded healthy and pleasant, like "herbal" tea. Or "herbal garden" scented candles. Or other things "herbal" that you might burn. (I said "you," not "me." I don't do that.)
The menu at Wharo has all the familiar Korean barbecue items, as well as a few "fusion" things like tofu and seared ahi tuna salads that are a nice touch but I chose to ignore. We were there for kbbq, so we ordered prime kalbi, which I would spell as "galbee" and pork jowl, which I know as "dae-jee bulgogi," but whatever. We were tempted to order a jji-gae, one of the sizzling, spicy, soupy stews, but instead ordered pajyun, which I must correct to "pah jun." Kalbi is acceptable, but pajyun is so totally wrong it hurts me.
Since the barbecue dishes are almost $20 each, a small bowl of greens comes with each order to help mitigate the feeling of ripoff. The greens were fresh, but I definitely did not feel better now that each barbecue order was actually worth $20 minus $1 for the salad, $19. We drank more to cool the burn.
Of course, there is bahn chan. Wharo gave us sook-joo namul (bean sprouts), gak-doo-gee (spicy radish), kimchee (bird flu cure), some unidentifiable saeng-sun jun (fish fritters), and potato salad made from creatively julienned potatoes. None of the bahn chan was outstanding. In fact, I felt somewhat cheated because half the delicious fun of korean restaurants is eating lots of different bahn chan that you don't always eat at home. Where is the mook (acorn jelly)? Where is the gyae-jahng (spicy marinated raw crab)? Where is every other steamed vegetable like broccoli that, once you splash it with sesame oil, soy sauce, and a sprinkle of goh-choo gah-roo (dried red pepper powder), becomes a Korean bahn chan?!?!
The bahn chan was a bit of a let down, but Wharo more than made up for it with the pah jun. In fact, I may go so far as to say that my quest for the perfect pah jun in a restaurant can end with Wharo. It was, actually, not a pah jun, but kimchee jun, which is the same pan-fried cake concept, but rather than green onions and/or seafood in the batter, it has kimchee.
Wharo's kimchee jun is about a half-inch high and the full diameter of the dinner plate on which it arrived. The surface of the pancake had been lightly charred, creating at bumpy relief map of some unknown eighth continent all over the batter that had been stained a pinkish red by the chopped kimchee. The kitchen had pre-cut the kimchee jun into squares, rather than into wedges, which I appreciated because I hate when people call it a "Korean seafood and vegetable pizza." It is nothing at all like a pizza. Kimchee jun is like...a kimchee jun.
The surface delicately crackled as I bit into a piece, a c
lear indication that yes, the jun had been fried in enough oil to call it "fried" but not so much that it was "deep-fried." The inside batter was soft and sticky, not from an underdone batter, but from the spicy, briny liquid that the high heat of the pan coaxed out of each piece of kimchee. Pah jun experiences of my past have been marred by a too-low frying temp, too much flour or overmixing of the batter, imbalanced ratio of batter to ingredients, and poor quality of ingredients. Wharo's pah jun batter was so thin and light, it was almost translucent from the cut side. The cook had used only enough batter to weld together pieces of kimchee, it was a wonder that the entire thing could have held its shape when the cook flipped it in the pan. Since kimchee by itself has strong enough flavor, I didn't need to dip each piece in any accompanying sauce.
If my eyes had widened with awe at how delicious the pah jun had been, they narrowed at the sight of the raw, marinated meats that came to the table. I was surprised and disturbed by the quantity - a single order was hardly enough meat for one person. I am not a member of the Claim Jumper Club who believes that every meal with choice of three sides should fit on a plate as big as a wagon wheel and cost $12.95, but I do believe in value.
With Behk Seju, grilling the meat was probably more fun than it should have been. The marinade on the prime kalbi was nothing especially good or bad, though I will note that while it was less sweet that the usual overly sticky sweet cola syrup marinade of many other restaurants, it was still too sweet for my taste. Dae-jee bulgogi was spicy and tender, but again, nothing especially good. I wished we had ordered another pah jun and a jji-gae instead.
Wharo wasn't bad for Korean, and in fact, it has a fairly nice atmosphere. However, the atmosphere alone is not enough to get me to go back for barbecue, since I have now seen the reality behind the Illusion of the 405. Unless I have a craving for nothing but kimchee jun and don't want to make it at home, I may actually have to hop to it and cross that 405 for Korean barbecue.