There seems to be an assumption among those who frequent Korean Barbeque that charcoal barbeque beats gas. I can understand that. There is something authentic about real charcoal. There's the scent of the coals, the red embers that fly up from the grill, the smell that stays on your clothes for the rest of the day. But in terms of taste, charcoal is overrated.
It's true, my favorite BBQ, Park's, uses charcoal, but one of my other favorites, Dong Il Jang, uses gas. Soot Bull Jeep, probably the most popular Korean BBQ place among non-Koreans, is famous for their sooty charcoal, but I've always thought their food was overrated. I get that charcoal imparts a good smokey flavor, but it's less important than people give it credit for.
Suhrabal, at First and Western, is a temple of charcoal. In most BBQ houses, the coal is already in the table's barbeque pit, waiting to be lit, when you sit down. At Suhrabal, after you order, the waiter brings a tray of burning red coals and places it in the table's pit; it clanks and bangs as it goes down, sending up waves of smoke and embers. (The liability insurance for this place must be through the roof.) The waiter then places grills over the pit and, after it warms up, places the meat. It's a fun and slightly scary ritual.
For all the smoke and fire of Suhrabal, though, the food is nothing special. The kalbi is a bit too fatty for my taste, and the seasoning is pretty run of the mill. Ross Gui is not as good as the beautifully marbled meat at gas-powered Dong Il Jang.
So while charcoal can impart some good flavor, don't write off gas or automatically bless charcoal. Eat and learn.
955 S. Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90006
Dong Il Jang
3455 W 8TH St
Los Angeles, CA 90005-2517
100 S Western Ave. (at First Street)
Los Angeles, CA 90004