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[Revisited]: Ben Jia

Ben Jia doesn't care if you come back. They don't care if you come in the first place. They're already packed. The expat Korean population was slashed when the economy melted like pork fat on a ch...
2010-07-06 14:07:00

Ben Jia doesn't care if you come back. They don't care if you come in the first place. They're already packed. The expat Korean population was slashed when the economy melted like pork fat on a charcoal grill, but there's still plenty of Koreans in Shanghai – enough to make you wait for a table. And enough that when I called twice to fact-check a series of recent meals, I got: “Find somewhere else to write about! You're wasting your time! You think you're going to get more information by calling us back? The more you call us, the more annoying we think you are! Click.”

It's perhaps not surprising then that the service at this Korean BBQ can leave one wanting. They might have bow ties but they don't have patience. So, why would you hike all the way out here to Koreatown, on the edge of Minhang, a 30-40rmb cab ride out of town? Because the pernicious influence of localization doesn't. Ben Jia gets high accolades from the resident Korean community for that most elusive of traits, “authenticity.”

To me it's just a great dinner. As a white American from the suburbs, I don't know much about “authenticity.” Where does one find it, and, once found, what does it look like? Is it like lettuce? Or sliced watermelon radishes? Serrated “sesame” leaves?

Does it come on a meter-long tray, planted on the side of your table? Because, maybe I've found it here, lurking in the amaranth, red leaf lettuce, seaweed, boiled cabbage, raw cabbage, green leaf lettuce, scallions, white radish, carrot, peppers and myriad other vegetables for wrapping:

Ben Jia offers a garden. Notice the lady's arm in there, for scale.

Or is it in the 36 plates my recent party of six accumulated before we had even ordered?

This is Ben Jia's banchan, their flight of side dishes. Among the sesame oil and chili sauces, there is, of course, kimchi. Ben Jia's pops. Spring onions are threaded through the julienned radish. There's another chili-smeared salad of spring onion on the side, a chilled kimchi soup of vinegar and cabbage, and a green salad with potato and a creamy black sesame dressing. Black sesame has an image problem. No one likes grey food. That is too bad. Ben Jia's salad makes a strong case for grey.

These are somewhat beside the point -- meat. The tables are inset with burners, the dining room swirls with guys taking charcoal to and fro in stainless steel boxes, and the ceiling is criss-crossed with a grid of exhaust pipes that accordion down to just about meat level.

That, above, is pork belly. It's not marinated. If it were in Korea, it'd come in longer strips, and you/the waitress would scissor them down to your desired length. At Ben Jia, they've decided it's two fingers wide. That's the extent of the criticism. The quality of the pork is fine. It's been frozen, but it's not dry.

Beyond that, it's up to your waitress, who will do all the grilling for you. Sometimes they grill with care, slowly shuffling the tiles, rendering the fat, crisping the edges, and letting the smoke swirl around the meat for a good long while.

Sometimes they don't.

They're eager to get away and do other things, and they have a tendency to rush you through the meats. Patience is not one of their virtues. Ben Jia can turn into a desperate push to keep up with the waitress's grilling velocity, which is why there are no pictures of the restaurant's thick strips of boneless rib, marinated in sweet soy and whatnot, or its thinly-sliced and heavily marbled beef brisket*. It's tough to keep up.

The meat is the focus. It's decent quality as well. I'll guess Australian, given the restaurant's, eh, conversational reluctance. They've been out of bone-in, marinated short ribs for the last month, which is a cardinal sin for a Korean BBQ restaurant. It's like McDonald's running out of burgers. And, recently, they've been short on the supply of Hite beer. It one-ups Tsingtao with its mod temperature-sensitive label that turns blue when the beer reaches “optimum drinking temperature.” In the world of forgettable Asian lagers, that's enough. (It's brewed from rice, which adds to its conversation quotient, but nothing else.)

Those disappointments are mitigated by Ben Jia's side dishes, which are as just as good, and maybe better, than its BBQ. It's tough to plow through too many in a meal, given the storm of free stuff and the size of the table. I've been through two that are worth passing over: a plate-sized patty of ground beef, like a burger without a bun; and the steak tartare, a wan tangle of pork-colored beef, julienned pear, and a raw egg. They are boring, but more than made up for by three others -- a stew, a “sauce,” and a pancake.

The pancake is your stock-standard Korean seafood jeon, a disc of octopus, prawns, onion, and vegetables held loosely together in an egg batter. Sogginess is a sure sign of a half-assed one. A crunchy one would be as well. Ben Jia's seafood pancake avoids both pitfalls to end up a bit crispy on the edges, with nice color on the surface. It's very good on its own, but markedly better with a vinegar and onion sauce the waitresses are always seeming to forget. Make sure to ask.

The other “sauce” is not much of a sauce at all, though it's called one on menu (haixian jiang, "seafood sauce"). This is it, a bubbling cauldron of ground pork, chopped octopus, and chili paste. It's just this side of a stew, and you can eat it like one, but it's meant as a sauce for wrapping up with your grilled meats:

And, finally, there's Ben Jia's tofu jjigae, which is everything good about Korean cuisine. It's bold. It's spicy. It's complex, and it's briny. It's tofu and clams and onion and chili paste and a raw egg that poaches in the iron pot, next to the silken tofu. It's arguably better than the meat. It hangs out towards the back of the menu, it's called shui doufu tang in Chinese, and, as Ben Jia's is several steps beyond your localized Korean joint, it might even be... “authentic.”

Ben Jia, 1/F, 1339 Wuzhong Lu, near Jinhui Lu. It is appropriately located just behind the Hyundai dealership, about 100 meters west of the intersection. In Korean, it's called Bonga. Click here for a map and details. Dinner, with a few beers but not cab fare out to the boonies, is about 100-150rmb per person.

*chadol baki, or laobai wusangge (老白吾桑格).