Thursday, May 30, 2024

Sura Korean BBQ’s table top grills are the tangible expression of a long held dream

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Sura Korean BBQ has long been the steward of Korean cuisine in Long Beach, largely responsible for not only introducing residents and visitors alike to the vast depth of Korean food but also finding ways to connect with the community via that very food. And its table top grills, installed on the patio tables earlier this year, are the result of a long held dream from its owners, Claire Kim and Brandon Sugano.

Sura Korean BBQ has been dreaming of this as an offering since its inception

Strolling along Atlantic Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets at dusk and you’ll notice the small plumes of smoke and the distinct scent of grilling meats waft across the sidewalk from Sura Korean BBQ’s patio. Come closer and you’ll find table grills installed into each table lining the patio, an assortment of meats being grilled right then and there, seasoned with an assortment of sauces, dips, and spices.

“We’ve been wanting this for the past decade,” Claire said, noting when her and her mom, Eunice, overtook the space in 2014 and truly turned it toward a Korean-centric cuisine space. “It just wasn’t initially viable but with our patio, it just made sense.”

The Sura Korean BBQ family had initially looked at installing the table grills inside, an endeavor that would have required an individual vent above each table—and an installation that would have costed them over a million dollars given they have tenants above them.

“It was just financially impossible to install it inside,” Brandon said. “But when we looked at how we were serving 40 people on the patio during the pandemic, people’s perspective on patio dining shifted to where they enjoyed it more. So we saw potential in installing the grills outside in a way that we really hadn’t seen before.”

Sura Korean BBQ’s table grills: How it all works and what you can order

The result of the patio table-side grills has been an astounding stand of support: You will often find lines for the patio space on the weekend while the indoors crowd remains unbothered by potential smoke and scents, allowing the space to expand hours across the board, including 11:30PM on Fridays and Saturdays (which follows a growing trend of restaurants trying to have later operating hours—they just need the support from their patrons to keep it up).

Scouring the grills, you will notice a variety of meats: From pork jowl and pork belly to thinly sliced Angus brisket and full-on ribeye steaks, it can feel intimidating for those uninitiated but genuinely rewarding if you’re with the right group.

Sura Korean BBQ offers three packages in two sizes, a small for two people and a larger for about four people: There’s Kim’s Prized combo which features Angus brisket, thick cuts of pork belly, along with your choice of pork jowl or spicy pork and marinated galbi short ribs or a USDA Prime ribeye steak. There’s Moo’s Combo, featuring a solely beef offering of Angus brisket, beef belly, and ribeye bulgogi with your choice of Galbi short ribs or a ribeye steak. And then there’s the Oinker’s combo dedicated to almighty pig, with pork belly, pork jowl, and spicy pork.

A server will come, turn on your grill for you, and away you go: Start with taking a square chunk of fat and melting it along the grill’s top, then start with your un-marinated meat first, followed by your marinated meat (so as to not immediately burn the marinade). When your grill top becomes too layered with meat gunk, they’ll happily replace it with a freshly washed one.

You can cook your meat as well done or rare as you like—some are better for rare, like the steak, while others have a nice crisp if you brown them, like the pork belly or brisket—and make sure to use all the sauces: “brisket sauce” (a semi-sweet jalapeño- and radish-infused soy sauce that pairs with most Korean BBQ), sesame oil with salt and pepper, ssamjang (a blend of soybean paste, gochujang, and spices), a secret hot sauce…

These meats are made for dipping and layering: Like taking a bit of crisp pork belly, dipping into each sauce, throwing it on top of a pickled watermelon radish, adding a garlic sliver and jalapeño before folding up the radish for a Korean mini-taco like no other. Or throwing some brisket atop a spoonful of corn cheese, a sweet-meets-cheesy concoction that is one of many sides that are included with your order.

The point is to mix, meld, masticate, and repeat—and with repeated visits, you’ll find yourself discovering your favorite combos, your favorite cooking times, and your desire to make it a group affair.

The grills at Sura Korean BBQ represent an extension of a food culture that has long existed in L.A.—but not Long Beach

Like many cuisines of other cultures, the importance of sharing food in Korean culture is an essential part of their social life. And table-side grilled meats in Korean BBQ is the biggest representation of that ideal: Surrounding the grill with as big a crew as you can gather, sharing grilled meats and soju by the bottle.

And this culinary gem of a dining experience has long existed (if not outright defined) Korean BBQ in Los Angeles, where K-Town and its varying establishments—legends like Park’s, Yangmani, Hanu’s, Corner Place…—have been uplifting this tradition since the late 1980s.

It is under this banner that makes Sura Korean BBQ’s step into the traditional of table-side grilling such an important step for the food scene as a whole, as well as to how Korean food is represented in Long Beach: Our neighbors to the north have long had soju-filled nights of excessive drinking met with excessive eating created by cooking their own meats and experimenting with flavor combinations and meat cuts.

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In other words: It’s about damn time—and we’re thankful we can now direct folks in Long Beach to such a gastronomical experience.

Sura Korean BBQ is the steward of Korean flavors in Long Beach—but the road there wasn’t always easy

Stuffed between a video store and a salon, the original Sura Korean BBQ space opened in 2008 on Atlantic Avenue just south of 7th Street. And it was opened by a family hesitant to own its Korean identity—and not necessarily for no reason: Outside of L.A.’s bustling Koreatown, traditional Korean flavors were not just rare but nearly non-existent in Long Beach before Sura. More people identified with the city’s ubiquitous Cambodian, Thai, and Vietnamese flavors.

When mother-and-daughter team Eunice and Claire Kim opted to take it over come 2014, at a time it was nearly a third of the size it is now, that very mingling of cultures on the menu downsized the space’s Korean traditions—and it was that particular focus they wanted to shift.

“There was this take on a Korean soup that was advertised as a take on ‘Korean pho’ [on the original menu],” Claire said. “And we immediately wanted to bring the legit flavors of Korean food and recipes back to the menu and actually call these dishes by their traditional names—rather than imitating another culture.”

Raised in Koreatown and brought here by Eunice when she was 10, Claire’s perspective on Korean food and identity cannot be easily shifted: In what is arguably the nation’s most influential Korean neighborhood, Claire had access to a quality of Korean cuisine unparalleled—and her dive into the world of owning a restaurant soon reflected that.

Gone were the pho imitators and in were the bowls of stellar yukgaejang—unquestionably the city’s best version, where shreds of brisket, scallions, and bracken fern sit in a fiery, beautifully bright red broth—and extra-fermented chunks of kimchi, made in house, is turned into kimchi jjigae, a kimchi stew layered with bits of firm tofu and fatty, salty pork belly.

And now, table top grilling. Bring it, Sura.

To read the full history of Sura Korean BBQ, click here.

Sura Korean BBQ is located at 621 Atlantic Ave.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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