Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Interpreting the culture gap

Yong Su San's entrees taste great in any language

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Diners reluctant to explore the myriad of marvelous ethnic restaurants along Buford Highway probably have bad dreams about insurmountable language barriers, alien customs and bizarre foodstuffs -- in short, an experience very much like my first visit to Yong Su San, an affordable haute Korean place near the Gwinnett County line.

A pair of turrets give a touch of historic exotica to the strip mall that houses Yong Su San and neighbors with such festive names as Love Cafe and Dynasty Karaoke Club. The restaurant itself features warm, well-appointed dining areas. The front room is decorated with simple fixtures of light-colored wood and unobtrusive paintings. The tables in the back room have special gaps in the center for charcoal grilling, but the room's more noteworthy for its picture windows overlooking pine trees: At nearly every other restaurant along Buford Highway, cars and asphalt are the best view you can expect.

Patrons at other tables placed delicious-looking, bright-red slices of meat onto their grills. We ordered our own dinners and things started getting funky. My wife asked for hot tea, which arrived in a tall, steaming, plastic water glass (other tables got tea that way as well). Among the traditional appetizers of kimchee -- pickled vegetables -- was a bowl containing a knot of dried fish, the size of small sardines. I feel safe in saying that it tasted as good as dried, pickled fish gets.

Our entrees arrived, and one was clearly what we ordered -- a Korean pancake baked with vegetables and seafood. But the other was a dish of cubed beef, while I expected my beef to be grilled at the table. Later I was able to ascertain that when a table has only one barbecue order, they grill it in the kitchen. But that was just one mystery in a meal marked by misunderstandings and poor service. We had to practically use semaphores to get water refills (which was my sole beverage). When I tried to ask for the extras that accompany a barbecue entree -- which usually includes lettuce leaves, garnishes and sauce -- the servers merely scowled at me. They seemed to grasp that we had a problem, but showed little interest in helping us.

I eventually resolved matters by walking the length of the restaurant to get the friendly cashier, and then was only able to make myself understood with the help of a customer. But even after that, we got short shrift: Other tables received the traditional wedges of orange with their bill, but not us.

Such hassle can put anyone off their appetite, but the food was undeniably tasty. The beef dish (haemol pajeo, $12.95) -- succulent, juicy morsels cooked with onions and sesame seeds -- had a tangy sweetness reminiscent of teriyaki.

The kalbjumuok ($14.95), served in a round dish and sliced like a pizza, provided a kind of oversized pancake and quiche hybrid. Strips of green pepper, onion and a hint of ginger were baked in the soft dough, along with small pieces of shrimp, for a simple but rich combination of flavors.

The kimchee choices brought to our table weren't as friendly as you might find at other Korean places. The big chunks of daikon made a nice contrast with the red pepper sauce, but were hard to pick up with chopsticks. Most of the other kimchee included the likes of limp sesame leaves and grayish greens.

I had no communication problems on a second visit. But that time I had the $5.99 lunch buffet, so all I had to do was pay in advance and serve myself. The buffet is provided in Yong Su San's downstairs room, a cavernous combination of cafeteria and banquet hall. The choices include a perfunctory plate of sushi rolls and several steam trays of kimchee, mostly the fiery heaps of shredded cabbage and limp greens, although the crunchy bean sprouts were a winner.

Meat options included succulent chunks of beefy stew meat on the bone and slices of black sausage with rice in the stuffing. Heavily flavored with soy sauce, the sausage dish has the taste and texture of Chinese potstickers. The buffet also featured chewy, golden-fried pork glazed with sweet and sour sauce served with carrots and grapefruit.

The downstairs room was hosting a wedding party on the night of our ill-fated dinner, so it may be that the staff was spread too thin that night. The food I've tried makes me curious to venture further into Yong Su San's extensive menu. But I'm not sure if, on a return visit, I'll be treated like an interloper or a welcome guest.

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