Number Won: Marina’s Nak Won Galbi – or whatever it’s named – unloads a world of must-try Korean flavor.

Extensive Flavor: (Clockwise from right): Steaming dolsot bibimbap, a range of banchan sides and spicy pork fill the table and the belly.

I’m not quite sure what to call my new favorite Korean restaurant. The title on the menu is . In Romanized script, that’s Nak Won Galbi, which translates to “Paradise Ribs.” But the name on the marquee reads Royal Korean BBQ. 


So I’ll just call it the bomb. (And to make it easy, I’ll refer to it as Nak Won herein.)


On a recent weekday night at Nak Won, the only table not occupied by Korean people is my own, which is a pretty solid indicator of authenticity.


Boiling bowls of soup and a crowd of little plates piled full of pickled goodies jockey for space on the tables while metal chopsticks clang against silver bowls of rice. The pungent smell of kimchi mingles with the saliva-inducing aroma of grilling meat; bottles of Hite rice lager and cups of soju clink together in cheer before being downed and refilled moments later; the crowd of drunken diners in the corner mischievously eye the karaoke machine across the room.


It’s typical of Korean barbeque restaurants to have grills built into the center of the table upon which thinly sliced strips of meat can be cooked and eaten right away, and most tables along the perimeter of Nak Won are of that type. I used to live in Japan, where Korean BBQ is as common as Jack-in-the-Box, and at those places, plates of raw meat were delivered to the table and the cooking was up to you. Here at Nak Won, our server was pretty insistent on cooking our beef and shrimp for us. But it was unclear whether she did so because of California law or health code or because it’s the Korean way. (At similar restaurant’s I’ve dined at in Seoul, for instance, the servers did the cooking as well.)


This is how good this beef is: My once carnivorous fiancée, who went off meat two and a half years ago and never looked back, the same girl who has dined with me at many fine restaurants and bypassed downright animal artistry for the sake of the diet, chose to break her streak at a restaurant that looks like it used to be a Wendy’s. She was overcome by the amazingness that is thin slices of beef marinated in soy sauce and garlic and then cooked on a grill. She ate four beefy bites and had a look of satisfaction on her face that I’ve not seen in years.


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For the uninitiated, Korean cuisine can be confusing with its spicy, sour, savory and fishy flavors hitting your palate in one meal. Intimidation is also high with barely descriptive English explanations of menu items that often turn away more than entice (“#40 – gop chang gui – marrow guts with sesame oil, salt and side dip, $18.95”).


To get the full experience at Nak Won, ordering off the BBQ grill menu is a must. But know that for the tabletop grill to be fired up, the minimum order is two items off the BBQ menu; a single order will be cooked in the kitchen. Bulgori ($18.95), the beef that broke the vegetarian, is great alone, but even better when eaten wrapped in a piece of accompanying romaine lettuce and given a dollop of fermented red chili paste, or gochujang. A portion of peanut sauce and raw garlic is also provided; the sauce was too salty and kind of gross, but roasting that raw garlic on the grill was delicious good fun. Sae woo gui ($20.95) translated to a dozen raw shrimp marinated in an oyster sauce. The server slopped them all onto the grill next to the beef in an effort to help us, but I would have prefered to cook them at my own pace, as some of the shrimp got cold waiting to be eaten, while others ended up overcooked.


A proper Korean meal is centered around soup, and Nak Won cooks vats of soup to order ($10.95-$13.95) that are big enough to share with the table. Hae mool soon tofu ($12.95) is served still-boiling in a deep pot. The fiery broth is fortified with lots of squid and octopus as well as ample cubes of tofu and assorted veggies. The spiciness could have been turned up a few notches for my taste, but it is likely hot enough for most. Bibimbap ($10.95) is perhaps the most accessible Korean cuisine, a palatable gateway into the tastes of Korea, a rice bowl with ground beef and vegetables; the same dish served in a scalding hot stone bowl that cooks the rice sticking to it into a crispy treat is dolsot bibimbap ($12.95). Either are excellent choices, made better by more gochujang. The seafood version of the dolsot, hae mool dolsot bab ($13.95), has a sweetness to it that pairs well with its earthy, nutty taste given by the crispy rice and assorted veggies. But what we thought would be a fun local twist on the dish was a little disappointing; the squid and oysters overpowered the other flavors in the bowl and sort of killed it for me.


Dinnertime prices at Nak Won are a little steep for what you’d pay at a Chinese, Japanese or Thai place, but one thing you’re paying for in the meal is banchan, or the traditional side dishes: In addition to rice and salad, you’ll receive a lot of little plates full of kimchi, pickled radishes and cucumbers, marinated potatoes and bean sprouts and whatever else they’ve made recently. The sides are meant to go along with the meal and will be refilled upon request.


While dinner might set you back a few bones, Nak Won practically gives away food at lunchtime. The lunchtime specials start at $5.95 and top-out at $8.95 for a main accompanied by salad, rice and soup. If you’re new to Korean cuisine, a lunchtime Nak Won visit will be an enticing way to whet your Korean appetite, but for the full shebang, come at night with an empty stomach. And leave feeling like royalty. 


NAK WON KOREAN BBQ 330 Reservation Rd, Marina. •11am-9:30pm daily. • 883-2302.

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