Restaurant Review #216: Soot Bull Jeep, Koreatown

Soot Bull Jeep has a widespread reputation as one of the best restaurants in Koreatown. It’s also notorious for being one of the smokiest, due to its charcoal (not gas) grills at every table in a dining room that is entirely indoors (and has all the ambiance of a truck stop).
Indeed, I wanted to change clothes when I got home, but while I was actually at the restaurant, I barely noticed the smoke at all. There certainly wasn't a heavy gray cloud smothering the entire room like I was expecting from all the reviews I read. The real problem was the thick coating of black sludge on the underside of the grill—the part that's under the table, the part that I ruined a pair of jeans on.
The massive range hoods at every table actually do a rather good job of getting the smoke out of the place, but at a cost—they're noisy, and combined with the extra-wide tables (to acommodate grills), it's hard to have a conversation in this joint.

The waitress lit our grill right away, and that was when I started to wish I had worn a long-sleeved shirt--the flying embers were nipping at my forearms all night. She also plunked down a plethora of panchan, coaster-sized dishes of sides and condiments— pungent and slightly too spicy for comfort, in a good way—for eating with and between mouthfuls of meat. Our waitress didn't seem to speak English, so we were a little worried when she seemed confused about our order, but she did know enough to tell us which type of beef was the best (we were relatively clueless, having only eaten Korean barbecue one other time).

Her recommendation was right on, but despite this gesture of kindness and her extensive help grilling our food and snipping our meat into edible-sized pieces with scissors (this is a chopstick-only establishment), she was really all business and not terribly pleasant. Somehow ordering a second Sprite made her crack a wide smile, but that was the only indication all night that she might not have hated being there. Drinks come in cans and bottles from the convenience-store cooler at the far end of the dining room--in other words, no free refills. The water cups are small and the food is spicy, so ordering a large beer might be your best bet.

The menu is one sheet of laminated white paper listing various meat options: chicken, squid, beef tongue, pork, spencer steak (also known as boneless ribeye, known for its tenderness and marbling), short ribs, and a few other options. This is not a restaurant for vegetarians—even the tofu soup has meat in it.
The chicken was unexciting, but then, chicken usually is. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I tried the squid on the recommendation of some Yelpers, who raved about the crispiness of the grilled tentacles, but I found it to be flavorless and rubbery. The beef, however, is some of the most flavorful meat you'll ever eat, thanks to the marinade—stick to the beef, and you won’t be disappointed. The portions are a little small and seem a little expensive for the amount of meat you get—but then maybe not, for the amount of sides you get. We had at least 12 on each end of the table—plenty to go around.

The restaurant’s atmosphere may leave much to be desired, but when you have a juicy, charcoal-infused, grill-crisped, searing hot slice of beef in your mouth, you won’t care about any of the other stuff. You can eat it straight or plop it in a ruffly, palm-sized lettuce leaf and add a smear of bean paste. The multitude of sides mean that every other bite can have a different flavor, a different degree of crunch, funk, and heat. Dense, sticky rice will help you get full and provide a respite from all the spiciness of the kim chee.
Though this appears to be a cook-it-yourself restaurant, our waitress actually cooked everything for us (which I much welcomed). The only thing we had to do was to make sure not to leave the meat on the grill too long, which was easy to do since they never brought us any actual plates. I turned my rice bowl into a makeshift plate, but with its small size, eating my meal was a bit awkward. The only other drawback of the cooking method is that I felt like I spent most of the night eating three pieces of meat, then waiting five minutes for the next serving. Also, if you're a slow eater, this is the kind of restaurant where you can quickly get out-eaten by your table mates and find yourself a few bites short of a meal. Otherwise, it's very filling (though not as filling as the all-you-can-eat places).

The parking lot is tight, but there is a parking lot—a guarded, free one, at that, and one where we were able to find a spot at 7:30 on a Saturday night. If you're not so lucky, parking on the street might be a pain, and bring your quarters for the meters. When you’re trying to find the restaurant, don't worry if you can't read Korean—the black and white sign is in English, and relatively easy to spot despite the general barrage of signage that is Koreatown.

Soot Bull Jeep
3136 W 8th St
Los Angeles, CA 90005
(213) 387-3865