With Great Korean Barbecue Comes Great Responsibility

May 10, 2014
Originally published on May 12, 2014 11:41 am

Go hunting for the best barbecue in America and you might end up in a city that surprises you: Los Angeles. Specifically, the L.A. neighborhood known as Koreatown.

I'm talking about Korean barbecue. If you're unfamiliar, that's thinly sliced, marinated meat grilled right in front of you. Trust me, it's awesome (this guy knows what I'm talking about).

I've been eating a lot of Korean barbecue lately, and there is something that I keep noticing.

You can find these buttons on the tables of practically every K-Town, as Koreatown is affectionately called, barbecue joint. A bit of journalistic research (tapping the button during a meal) led me to discover their purpose: to call over the server.

Duh, right? That's what some of you are probably thinking. And it's what my Angeleno friends told me. But I'm new to the city and I was curious: Where did these call buttons come from? Why are they so popular at Korean barbecue joints? These questions took me straight to David Kang, head of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.

"These call buttons are relatively new," Kang told me. "In Korea it's still common that, if you want something, you yell 'yogi-yo' or 'here,' and you wave your arm. Then they come running over and they're like, 'What do you want?' "

Call buttons have only become common to Koreatown in the past generation or so, Kang says, as non-Koreans increasingly began to venture into Korean restaurants. He says they are the product of two very different dining cultures.

"The American internal logic is the waiter comes over, they introduce themselves, they're friendly, they keep checking up on you. The Korean internal logic is, you're there to eat. And [the waitstaff] don't bother you unless you call them over."

The restaurant Park's BBQ serves exquisite grilled meat out of a strip mall in Koreatown. The facade is a little grimy, but on a Wednesday afternoon the parking lot is packed with BMWs and Mercedes. David Chang, a server at Park's BBQ, says people ask about the call buttons all the time — it's a sign they might be tourists.

"They are like, 'What does this do?' " Chang says. "Or sometimes they press it and I go over there and they are like 'I don't know what this was for,' and I am like, 'So you just pressed it?' "

Jake Ayers was visiting from Seattle when I caught up with him at Park's BBQ. He didn't know what to do with the button on his table. But when I told him what it was for, he gave it a try.

Then he tried it again.

That's a faux pas says server David Chang. He has this advice for K-Town newbies: Definitely hit the call button when you need something. But then just wait. Don't hit it again.

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If you take a cross-country trek looking for the best barbecue in America and wind up in, I don't know, Texas, North Carolina, Kansas City, our next contributor would say, you've taken a wrong turn. Consider Los Angeles - specifically Koreatown - where he thinks Bulgogi Beef might just be the best. But, says Miles Bryan, customers first need to know how to order.

MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: So I'm new to Los Angeles, and there are a lot of things that I still don't get about the city. But something that's really caught my attention is the shiny plastic button you find on the tables of practically every Korean barbecue joint around here. That called for some field research.

DAVID CHANG: So when I press a bell, there's a table number two, and number two will show up right there.

BRYAN: David Chang (ph) is a waiter at Park's BBQ in Koreatown. They've been around for over 10 years and are a mainstay in the neighborhood. Chang says those buttons are basically just a paging system. You ding it to get your server's attention. Sounds simple but...

CHANG: No, a lot of people ask - they're, like, what does this do? Or sometimes they press it, and I go there and they're, like, oh I didn't know that was what it was for. I was, like, oh so you just pressed it?

BRYAN: They might have been tourists because the Angelenos I talked to said these call buttons are just part of eating Korean barbecue. Still nobody seemed to know where they came from or why they're so popular. So I called David Kang, head of the Korean Studies Institute at USC. I figured they must be a Korean thing - turns out, not really.

DAVID KANG: These call buttons are relatively new. In Korea, it is still common that when you want something, you just yell yogigo, or here, over here and you wave your arm. And then they come running over, and they're, like, what do you want?

BRYAN: Kang says these buttons are more of a phenomenon in Koreatown than in Korea. They only started showing up in the last few decades when non-Korean started to venture into K-town restaurants. Kang says that they're a way to bridge the gap between American and Korean dining cultures.

KANG: The American internal logic is your waiter comes over, they introduce themselves, they're friendly, they keep checking up on you. The Korean logic is, you're there to eat, and they don't bother you until you call them over.

JAKE AYERS: We'll do the Galbi ribs, and we'll also probably get some pork belly...

BRYAN: Jake Ayers (ph) is a tourist. He's down from Seattle. He hadn't even noticed the call button on his table, but when I told him how it worked, he thought it was a good idea.

AYERS: I think it makes sense in. Yeah. If you need to get someone's attention, and you don't necessarily want to flag them down like this, then, you know, you could be a little bit more elegant and just push a button.

BRYAN: Ayers gave the call button a try for the first time during that meal, then he tried it again.

AYERS: I think I might just do it one more time while you are here. Let's see what happens.

BRYAN: Maybe not. David Chang, the waiter at Park's BBQ, has this advice for the K-town newbies. Definitely hit the call button when you need something, but then just wait. Don't hit it again. For NPR, I'm Miles Bryan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.