In the kitchen of Omi Korean Grill and Bar, three old women start each workday at 7 a.m. They chop savoy cabbage into large bite-sized chunks and mix them with salt, water, fish sauce and chili pepper, filling several massive 20-gallon plastic buckets. After a day, the mixture foams and bubbles, indicating the cabbage has started to ferment. Kimchi is born.
There are more buckets. Smaller 5-gallon containers hold similar kimchi mixtures of cucumbers and daikon radishes. The cucumber mix is slightly sweet, and the daikon is a little tart. Both are somewhat spicy, laced with a red, loose chili paste that packs modest heat.
There are more buckets: vegetables such as broccoli cooked for an instant to a rich forest green and tossed with sesame oil, and bean sprouts left plain. Green cabbage is roughly shredded and dressed in a bland sauce akin to American coleslaw. Seaweed is laced with sweet vinegar and salt and little strands of onions. Each container holds a different component that makes up Omi's banchan, a collection of side dishes that accompany every meal at this massive Carrollton restaurant just off Old Denton Road.
Anchored by an H-Mart, the Furneaux Creek Village Shopping Center draws Korean locals in droves every day. There's Choon Chun Chicken House with massive communal stir-fries of chicken galbi, sticky sweet Korean fried chicken at Tto Tto Wa, two pho restaurants and Japanese and Thai places, too. And there's Omi, where most of the customers crowding the vestibule that shares a front door with a Korean bookstore are waiting to indulge an orgy of meat on par with a Brazilian churrascaria.
Once inside the dim but clean and modern space, they sit around tables of all sizes outfitted with small gas-fired grills, which billow smoke up and into the vent hoods above. Through the haze a long bar runs along the back of the space where Coors Light and soju are sipped with enthusiasm.
For $18.99 you're granted access to a protein procession as endless as your conscience (or willpower) allows. You're limited only by the penalty of a surcharge should you request some meat and not finish it. (Perhaps you should bring your biggest purse, just in case.) There's pork belly and fatty beef brisket short ribs sliced on the bias, BBQ chicken and pork slices marinated in pureed fruit and seasoning. Simply tell the hostess you'd like the all-you-can-eat option and watch the parade begin.
Banchan arrives like a fanfare, signaling the start of your meal and awakening your palate while you wait for your meat to arrive. A small dish of glass noodles loaded with earthy flavors and thin wisps of beef, and a mild fish cake cut into rubbery ribbons like fettuccine join the pickles and boiled and fermented vegetables. They're all dished into small bowls, dropped on your table to form a tapestry of flavors. Get to know a little of each with your chopsticks, but practice restraint. They'll taste a lot better in just a few moments.
By now another waitperson has fired up your grill and the oiled, metal plate gets hot. Soon after, the meat arrives. If you're timid, another waitperson will take over your tongs and start the process, but don't be shy. It's your meal. Be patient and don't fiddle with whatever you're grilling. Let a nice brown crust form on one side before you flip it over. Now you're adding flavor no marinade can ever impart. Now you are a Korean barbecue master.
If cooking your own meat inches from your face is not your idea of a festive Friday night, that's OK. In fact, you might be better off letting the kitchen cook for you. Ordering single dishes from the menu may not be as economical, but the cooks turn out dishes significantly better than the thin, frozen pork-belly slices you have to fumble with yourself.
Not the dumplings, though, which turned out to be the frozen, pre-made sort, or the seafood pancake, which was crisp at the edges and not oily but would have been better had the tired small shrimp and bland rings of calamari been omitted. Stick with the meats.
My favorite was so won gal-bi, short ribs cut parallel with the bone instead of across it. Order this standalone and a black metal plate full of well-charred meat comes to your table a few minutes later. The godeunguh gui, a salted, grilled mackerel that isn't that salty, is very good, too. The flesh tastes fresh, with crisp, blackened skin and that vein of fatty flesh that runs down the center that only a mackerel freaker could love. Douse it with a squeeze of lime and then tear in with your chopsticks.
Whatever you order, don't neglect the banchan. What was once a spectacle of sides is now an array of condiments. Use them as you like to doctor up each bite of meat. If the pork belly seems a little boring, try it topped with some funky kimchi. Sweet barbecue ribs seem great? They're a showstopper juxtaposed with that tart, spicy daikon. The combinations are endless. No two bites need be the same, and a meal can run longer than an hour as you explore an infinite number of flavor combinations.
My favorite banchan? Ask for the round radish if it's not already on your table. The thin slices, from a girthy daikon, tinged pink from shredded red radish added to the brine, remind me of small tortillas. Pick one up and top it with a hunk of grilled beef and top that with the sweet cucumber kimchi. Pop the whole thing in your mouth like a small Korean taco, chew a little and let the flavors mingle: salty and sweet with a little heat. You're in charge of every bite here. Your mouth is very alive now.
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