My friend Jenni shook her head as her husband, Wyatt, raised his phone, his finger poised over the video button.
“What happens at Korean karaoke,” she said firmly, “stays at Korean karaoke.”
My brother Piers was moving to Atlanta for a job opportunity, so I invited friends and family to gather at Emashiya Korean Bar-B-Que in Evans to celebrate and wish him well. The restaurant is well-known for its humorous exterior signage (“Where? Here! Korean BBQ”) and is one of the area’s few Korean dining establishments, with a large dining area for non-singing patrons.
But walk through the spacious dining room and open a door, and you’ll find Emashiya’s private karaoke rooms (reservations are suggested). The smaller rooms host parties for four to eight people. We opted for the largest room, with a long table suitable for up to 25 and even a pool table.
The main attraction, though, was the karaoke. As we walked in, Piers had already paged through the huge (and wildly eclectic) menu of songs (note: the songs are organized by artist name) and was on his third or fourth one.
I grabbed the second mic and joined him on a chorus of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler, warbling the words as they scrolled up on a large flat screen – backed by videos of emoting Korean actors. (The videos didn’t seem to tie in to the songs at all – unless the fact that there was a lot of crying going on was supposed to tell us something about the state of our karaoke-ing).
Our waitress checked on us several times (there’s even a handy call button to buzz your waitress over), and once we’d had our fill of singing, it was time to order.
The menu is written in Korean and English and features appetizers; meat platters served with rice; seafood and meat stir-fries with vegetables; noodle dishes; rice dishes; fish; dinner soups; stews; combination plates; special dishes (order these 24 hours in advance); and the popular box meals, featuring beef short ribs, Korean ribeye or spicy pork as entrée options, all served with chicken wings, man doo (dumplings), jap chae (sweet potato noodles), fried rice, soup and salad.
We ordered the hae mul, a seafood and kimchee “pancake” with scallions to share as an appetizer. But one great thing about Korean dining is the tiny dishes of appetizers (known as banchan) that are served with every meal – anywhere from three to 12 little tasty dishes (12 are served for special formal occasions).
Our waitress was going to wait and serve our banchan with our meals, but we asked her to go ahead and bring them out.
That night, Emashiya’s six banchan featured dishes of pickled cucumber, bean sprouts, spicy daikon (radish), a cold potato salad, kimchi (a fermented cabbage and vegetable slaw, which can be very hot; Emashiya’s was only mildly spicy to my taste, but was the spiciest of the banchan) and a type of tangy and sweet vegetable root. (In the past, we’ve also enjoyed tiny salty fish and other unusual vegetables.) They’re a great way to get just a taste of another culture, and can even be enjoyed with rice to make a meal.
Our main appetizer, the seafood pancake, was incredibly savory, crisp and browned, packed with shrimp, octopus and squid, along with celery, onion and the mild kimchi. In other words, it was fantastic, but pretty heavy – a good appetizer to share.
Every time I eat Korean food, I consider ordering the box – but then I never do because it feels too “American” to order what is basically a combination platter, but then I’m jealous of those who do.
Wyatt, along with five other folks at our table, opted for the box, and it looked great – perfect little portion sizes of bulgogi (Korean grilled marinated beef) and sides. I was kicking myself; like the banchan, it offered plenty of variety and an opportunity to taste different types of Korean cuisine.
Sean ordered the bulgogi meat platter – which came with a fairly large platter of the bulgogi and a bowl of white rice. The beef was a little charred, a little chewy and rich with oil – but it was good, especially with the rice to accompany its savoriness.
My choice was the spicy pork belly, which also came with just a bowl of white rice. It was super tender, with a great spicy kick, again beautifully grilled and charred. My idea was that the banchan would supply the lack of vegetables, but it didn’t quite do that; next time, I vowed, one of us would order a vegetable entrée to share.
My mom did share some of her meal with me – a rice dish in a hot stone pot, topped with vegetables and a fried egg. When broken, the egg is meant to create a sauce that blends all the ingredients together.
And my brothers Piers and Mark had the squid wars: Mark had the spicy squid over rice, while Piers’ was over vegetables. Mark’s was so hot that I was gulping water in a matter of seconds (although Piers tasted it and merely shrugged his shoulders); and Piers’ had a great depth in the squid sauce.
It was a crazy night: tons of Korean food, awkward caroling, crying kids, even a falling vase. But by the time it came for us to say our goodbyes, I wished we could do it all over again.