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King Coal

Smack between the last remnants of white-glove Westlake and the swelling precincts of the Central American community, behind the shuttered Ambassador and just down from Salvadoran pupuserias and Korean tourist hotels, Soot Bull Jeep is the archetypal big-city Korean barbecue: noisy, smoky, loud, always crowded, with all the bustle you’d expect in the heart of a great city. Here we are, crammed around a table, battling great gusts of second-hand meat smoke that shroud the restaurant in blue, garlic-scented fog.

We discuss the difficult parking, and the long wait for a table, and how the sign outside bills Soot Bull Jeep as a seafood house even though the only seafood on the menu is eel. (Come to think of it, the sign doesn’t bother to mention the name of the restaurant.) For a quarter, the ashtrays--"Fun Factories,” they’re called--will dispense a packet of jokes in Korean. Guys in suits pound back endless shots of Jinro, a kind of smooth, low-proof Korean vodka distilled from sweet potatoes, poured from bottles designed to look like J&B; Scotch. Tabletop grills briefly explode into fountains of yellow flame.

There is a noodle dish or two to be had here, but you will certainly order barbecue; you know it, the hostess knows it, the family at the next table pretty much suspects it. Even before the waitress drops a menu in front of you, she scatters a trowelful of glowing hardwood coals into the pit set in the middle of your table, reaches down to turn on a gas jet and prods them until they sputter into fragrant life. Above the charcoal goes a greased wire screen; around the pit go a dozen or so dishes of pickled cabbage, steamed spinach and the rest of the little appetizers and condiments that come with a Korean barbecue meal.

The restaurant is one of the few in town that use the traditional live coals for their tabletop barbecue in place of the more common gas grills, and the meat takes on a delicious savory tang. Dinner at Soot Bull Jeep is an atavistic thing: not just good liquor and platters of raw meat, but also smoke and fire, and showers of small cinders that can leave your shirt looking like a cartoon bulldog right after an encounter with an exploding cigar.

If you are new to this sort of thing, a waitress will unceremoniously dump raw, marinated protein onto the grill in front of you, returning periodically to turn the meat when it is done, scissoring it into bite-size chunks, piling it away from the heat so that your ignorance of cooking times injures the meat no more than it absolutely has to. When the flames leap too high, she scatters ice chips, which bubble and dance as they hit the hot grill. When the food is burnt irreparably, she sighs and scrapes the salvageable bits onto a fresh screen.

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Short ribs turn nicely chewy but retain their juice on the grill; pork loin is marinated in a spicy chile paste that blackens and turns crisp; bits of marinated Spencer steak are sweet and tender at their peak, but overcook in a flash. Slabs of eel become sweet, crisp and pleasantly oily over the flame; off-menu baby octopus gets crunchy around the tips of the tentacles, deliciously chewy toward the thickest part of the body.

When a bit of meat is cooked to your liking, you can drag it briefly through a soy-based dip, or wrap it in a scrap of lettuce leaf with perhaps a few shreds of marinated scallion and a schmear of pungent fermented-bean paste. Unmarinated Spencer steak comes to the table frozen, shaved into rounds the approximate size and shape of beer coasters, which the waitress flicks onto the grill like a gambler dealing out a hand of cards, and you eat it with a salt-sesame oil dip instead.

For dessert, Soot Bull Jeep features a special kind of perfumed chewing gum that smells like hand lotion (the label warns, “for lady only”)--perhaps the only gum in the world that makes Juicy Fruit seem restrained.

* Soot Bull Jeep

3136 West 8th St., Los Angeles, (213) 387-3865. Open every day noon to 11 p.m. Full bar. Difficult street parking. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20 to $24.


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