Good, affordable Korean yakiniku
Friday - November 28, 2008
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I know, I know, the last thing you need the weekend after Thanksgiving is suggestions for an all-you-can-eat buffet. But after 24 years as one of the most popular Korean Yakiniku restaurants in town, Camellia Buffet deserves a share of the spotlight. And even if you’ve had enough meat and stuffing to last until at least December, I’m guessing that another couple of days of leftover turkey sandwiches and you’ll be craving kalbi.
Camellia has the largest selection of seafood in town. Mi Hee Jeon is the most recent owner of the original yakiniku that opened in 1984, and she’s devoted to the cause of supplying good food at low prices.
She gets up before dawn to start preparing dishes for a buffet line famous for its kalbi and bulgogi, kim chee and red bean soup. There’s something almost overwhelming about the line of more than 50 items on the allyou-can-eat menu. Lines of raw meats, seafood and dozens of vegetable dishes give diners limitless access to Korean favorites. What’s truly impressive, though, is not simply the buffet, but the fact that owner Mi Hee Jeon and her husband, Chang, are responsible for making the mountains of food every day.
“I get up at 4:30 every morning to begin preparing the vegetables,” says Mi Hee with an enthusiastic smile. “I really love to do it.” Prep includes making gallons of red bean soup - a dish that’s becoming a signature at Camellia. “The soup takes more than three hours to make each morning,” Mi Hee explains, “but it is very good, and people really like it.”
Mi Hee and Chang bought Camellia Buffet four years ago, and have been methodically making subtle changes to the buffet items ever since. With culinary experience gained working in restaurants in Korea (Chang is a pastry chef who owned his own bakery), the two have brought new dishes and a change of flavor to the 24-year-old restaurant.
If you’re going for the first time, you should have high expectations of the food, but less of the décor. With orange plastic booths and seat covers that have seen better days, Camellia is a place where the buffet rather than the banquettes takes center stage. It’s a place for serious eaters rather than social ones, and definitely the place to go if large portions and a small check take precedence over service and ambience.
For $12.95 at lunch and $19.95 at dinner, there’s access to dozens of dishes - all prepared from scratch.
“We want, of course, to give people good value and the best Korean food,” says Mi Hee.
And despite the $12.95 lunch price, you’ll find sashimi, shrimp and house-made poke on the menu every day.
“Many people come for the seafood,” says Mi Hee, “and especially the poke and sashimi.”
Speaking with the help of an interpreter, Mi Hee explains that one of the changes she’s made at Camellia since taking over is to bring healthier choices to the buffet line and to add even more fresh vegetables than before.
“We took the spice level and heat down a little bit,” she says. “So many more people can enjoy the dishes without having too much heat, and we added another kind of kim chee and some more vegetables.”
Camellia’s regular clientele are a mix of locals who’ve been coming for decades and Japanese tourists who’ve heard about the restaurant’s red bean soup and kalbi. And, in recent months, the restaurant has been seeing more families getting together for gatherings and parties, appreciative of the price.
The sheer volume of food on the buffet line is quite extraordinary - at lunchtime there are 45 different dishes such as six different types of meat and five different kinds of seafood, including shrimp, squid and sashimi. At night, the selection rises to 50 items. There’s chicken, pork, bulgogi, kalbi and a Korean favorite, abomasum (cow intestine), which is boiled and then marinated in - you’ve guessed - a secret sauce.
“It’s very popular, and there are not too many restaurants that serve it,” says Mi Hee. The intestines don’t really need to be cooked - take them from the chilled counter where they’re marinating and lightly grill them over your tableside yakiniku to get the most flavor. Another delicacy that will appeal to adventurous eaters is Mi Hee’s version of marinated raw shrimp. The shrimp are soaked in a soy sauce mixture that turns their shells and flesh black. Eat them raw or throw them on the grill. “People like the variety of seafood that we offer - there’s something different for them here,” says Mi Hee.
The kalbi, most people agree, is some of the best in town, and everyone I spoke to in the restaurant (all sitting with plates piled high with kalbi and shrimp) agreed that the quality of food at Camellia is hard to beat.
“I come from Waianae to eat here all the time,” one regular customer told me. “The poke and sashimi are the best.”
Manager Mark Descalso has been at the restaurant almost since day one and he’s heard thousands of positive comments about the food in the past 23 years. “People like almost everything on the buffet,” he says.“and they like the price.”
Yakiniku Camellia Buffet 2494 S. Beretania St. 944-0449
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