Where there’s smoke

Oz Korean BBQ

3343 Bradshaw Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95827

(916) 834-6414

At Oz, a new Korean barbecue restaurant off Highway 50, you immediately know you’re not in Kansas any more. Or are you? There’s certainly plenty of beef, just like in Kansas. The servers are as friendly and solicitous as anyone you’d find in the Midwest. And the delicious smell of the grill hangs over everything, leading to thoughts of an all-American cookout.

But no, definitely not. If you were in Kansas, there would be no giant murals, inspired by Tahoe and Yosemite, painted by a Korean artist. The beef would be less likely to have a savory soy- and garlic-scented marinade. And there wouldn’t be a dozen dishes of chili-spiked pickled vegetables at every table.

Oz Korean BBQ, open for about three months, packs a lot of surprises even if you’re not picked up and dropped off there by a stray tornado. From the outside, the sprawling building looks like it used to be the lobby of a motel with dreams of grandeur. The metal protuberances all over the roof, however, suggest docking ports for the mother ship. (I think they’re actually ventilation for the smoke hoods at each table.)

Inside, though, the mood is surprisingly sophisticated. Dark, sleek wood walls set an attractive tone, and pretty yellow panels painted with delicate blossoming branches enhance it. The big smoke hoods break the mood a bit, but without them the air would be opaque.

At each table, diners are intently watching the sizzling meat on the central grill. The dinner menu is mainly a list of meats that waiters grill at your table and which you pluck off as it’s done—a perfect and convivial dinner for a big group on a chilly fall night. The menu, not surprisingly, focuses heavily on beef, but there are other options. (If you’re vegetarian, however, you won’t find much, unless you’re looking for a meal of rice and kimchee.)

There’s a lunch menu as well, with big bowls of soups and stews, noodle dishes and the like. We tried a couple bowls of soup. The “Oz galbi” is a short-rib soup with thick clear noodles, savory meat, leeks and delicious mild broth. The bright-red “Oz chili soup” had shredded beef and vegetables. Despite the color, it wasn’t blow-your-head-off incendiary, but it had a good spicy flavor that deepened over the course of the dinner.

There’s also a menu of noodles made from sweet potatoes, capellini-thin with a curiously resilient texture. They come cold in broth, with vinegar and wasabi for dressing, a slice of beef and other accoutrements. Even the “small” side order was enormous.

In fact, our group of four had so much food we didn’t know what we would do with it all. We solved the problem by eating it. The pickled vegetables and other side dishes—an integral part of the meal—covered nearly the whole table in a panoply of interesting (and some unidentifiable to us) little bowls. Each of us got a delicious horseradish-pungent salad of shredded cabbage and other vegetables to start, as well as a bowl of cold orange broth with floated quartered slices of daikon and pieces of cabbage. It had an unusually delicate chili flavor and was a wonderfully appetizing way to start the meal.

Our server, meanwhile, was grilling up our first plate of beef—short ribs, also called “Oz galbi.” They were thick spirals of beef unspooled from the bone, so well marbled that the streaks of fat went a bit beyond marbling. When cooked, it was juicy and delicious, unctuous and sizzling. We also ordered beef bulgogi, which came cooked with a sweet-and-salty marinade and sauce. It was delicious with the plain white rice.

Our server had warned us off the duck, so we tried the chicken bulgogi. (“Our duck is not very good,” he confided, saying that it made too much smoke on the grill.) The chicken couldn’t quite measure up to the delights of the beef, but the garlicky marinade was tasty. Through experimentation, we found that we liked the chicken best when it was left on the grill until quite well browned. The pieces of onion and green onion that came with it were also good when very well cooked and caramelized.

The parade of accompaniments varied in their appeal. I particularly liked the lightly pickled Napa cabbage and the tangy shreds of daikon, as well as a chili-coated dish of plain kimchee and a little dish of what seemed to be spinach leaves with peanuts. Chunks of pickled cucumber (I think) were too bitter for me, and the slippery rice cake was a bit bland, but it was still fun to try it all.

Our server at one point apologized for neglecting us—the restaurant was having its busiest night to date, he said—but we never felt like we’d been left alone for too long. Besides, the table had a button you could press to summon a server, should you need one. (We never wanted to be quite that demanding.) It was plenty enjoyable to sit back, sip from a giant bottle of imported Korean beer (seju is also available), and see the show unfolding on the grills all around us as smoke swirled in the air.