By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Ask any staffer at 356 Korean BBQ & Bar what the three-digit number in the restaurant’s name signifies, and you’ll be told in rehearsed fashion that it’s “the right temperature for cooking” — in degrees Fahrenheit, of course. Then, likely before you finish reading the menu, a parade of side dishes and dipping sauces arrive, encircling the grill built into the middle of your table.
Those little bowls of kimchi, pickled cucumbers, squid relish and other savories signal the start of Korean barbecue at its best. The difference here, however, is that it’s presented within trendy, industrial trappings and to the cadence of electronic dance music, which thankfully was kept at a bearable volume during our midday visit.
The restaurant is located inconspicuously in Westfield Mission Valley mall, between Macy’s and Bed Bath & Beyond. It’s tailored after Quarters Korean BBQ in Los Angeles. The owners of each are good friends, and both kitchens serve their raw beef, poultry and seafood in quarter-pound portions.
Grilling assistance is provided by the servers. Although anyone with even a partial knack for cooking over gentle gas flames will sail through the process with the aid of tongs and meat scissors that are brought to the table, not to mention the safety assurance of fire extinguishers hanging over every table in bell-shaped smoke hoods.
One of my go-to dishes in Korean restaurants is bulgogi, those thinly sliced strips of beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and honey or brown sugar. The gold standard is achieved when the beef is gristle-free and the ingredients of the marinade meld into sweet-savory harmony.
This bulgogi hit the mark with tender rib eye that was sufficiently marinated and strewn with large slices of raw garlic. Everything caramelized beautifully, resulting in a pile of charry, mouthwatering beef that left us ignoring at first the garnishes and dipping sauces. The portion was adequate for the two of us, although we would have plowed lawlessly through a second round had we not ordered the spicy chicken as well.
The chicken (all thigh pieces) took a few shorter minutes to cook. Its reddish marinade appeared spicier than it tasted. But the hot sauce and kimchi in the condiment lineup compensated, while the green-tea salt gave the meat a novel, addicting twang.
One of the sauces was cheese fondue, an unexpected accompaniment served tepid. Unlike the remaining sidekicks such as fresh seaweed salad, sautéed broccoli with rice noodles and crispy bell peppers in soy paste, it was pretty much void of flavor and offered zero enhancement to the meats.
Other protein choices include beef brisket, New York steak, boneless short ribs, pork belly, scallops, shrimp, and lobster. The options are listed under “tapas” and each order comes also with a basic green salad in sesame vinaigrette.
Rice is oddly missing from the meal inclusions. From what we deciphered from the somewhat confusing menu, it’s available only separately as kimchi fried rice and sells for $11.
We augmented our meal with a decent-size bowl of ramen priced just under $7. We loved the moderate spice level of the beef broth and the tenderness of the thin, Goldilocks noodles, which became incorrigible at times when fishing them out of the bowl. All told, it was the zestiest ramen I’ve had in years, and sans the extreme saltiness of most other versions.
A large bar is incorporated into 356’s spacious layout. But it lacks diversity in terms of beer and cocktails. The brew list features only a few crafts by companies such as Belching Beaver, Shock Top and Saint Archer. The remaining choices fall flat with Blue Moon, Corona, Bud Light, etc., while soju serves as the liquor for a limited selection of fruity cocktails.
But this is, after all, located in a mall that also claims the beer-centric Yard House as one of its tenants. At 356, it’s mostly about the high-quality edibles and the interactive dining experience you get from grilling foods right at your table with friends, lovers and family members.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.