New Korean spot fills to the gills with delights from the grill

It is by now

well known among foodies that some of the best ethnic restaurants are hidden away in nondescript strip malls, where the rent is cheap enough to allow them to do their thing and to do it well. But when you think about these places, you tend to think of the suburbs (Odenton's Grace Garden comes to mind), not the very center of Baltimore. If the shopping center is at the corner of Maryland and West 20th Street, though, you are not only in the heart of the city, you are in the heart of our small but burgeoning Koreatown, and there, beside the Save-A-Lot and across the parking lot from the laundromat, you will find Be-One Korean B.B.Q. Restaurant (2016 Maryland Ave., [410] 244-5600), which has been open for a year now. (Be aware that all of the English spellings within the restaurant, including the name, vary, so that you will find it written B1 and B-One: They are all the same place.)


Sure, there are a lot of other options in the neighborhood-Joung Kak is just across the street-but despite its strip-mall locale and its questionable tangerine-orange and spicy-yellow-mustard color scheme that looks kind of like a Subway crashed into a Hardee's, you shouldn't sleep on Be-One. Because along those sherbert-colored walls, there are more than a dozen tables with grills in their centers and vents overhead where you can spend this winter eating spectacular Korean barbecue.

That is the real reason we visited: the smell of succulent meat enveloping us in its loveliness and then-the only thing that could be better-its flavor, wrapped in a crisp leaf of lettuce, and dipped ever so lightly in sesame oil, bean paste, or bibimbap chili sauce. We were also here to share the experience with a group of six friends, so we could get as much meat possible and have intelligent, entertaining people to talk to as we drooled and noshed. We ordered the "B.B.Q. Set A" for $89, which comes with cha dol (brisket), galbi (beef ribs), bulgogi (marinated aged beef), joo mool luck (boneless ribs), and chicken bulgogi. All items are available individually, but we passed on that, because variety is the key. We asked our extraordinarily friendly and patient server if we could trade out the chicken bulgogi for the pork belly, because, well, we love pork belly a lot more than we love yardbirds.

They did not bring out banchan-the small plates of pickled appetizers that many restaurants offer for free-so we ordered some. It turned out to cost $11.95 and to have a much smaller variety than, say, Nam Kang, a block away. It didn't even include kimchi, which seems to us a must. But then came the miso soup (with some kind of fish in it), an egg souffle, and the delicious seaweed salad, all of which came with the meal and which we devoured, along with a bunch of tasty Hite beers (about $4 each) as our server prepared the grill. (While eating in places like this we have learned that, phonetically, "mek-ju han byung du ju-seyo" means "another beer please" and "kam sa ham ni da" means "thank you.")

First out was the brisket. There is really nothing like sitting at the table watching the meat sizzle and brown, feeling the emanating warmth from the grill on our belly, sipping Hite, talking with friends as the server snips meat in half-when it is almost ready. It was really like watching a lover slowly undress for the first time. As the thin strips were piled into our bowls, the conversation suddenly stopped, and we each grabbed a piece of lettuce and scooped up a bite without waiting for it to cool. The brisket was good with all of the sauces, but it didn't need any. The flavor of the meat itself was enough and it seemed to be heightened by the baconesque aroma of the pink pork belly, now browning in front of us.

Timing is essential at a Korean barbecue and Be-One had it down, perhaps because the server was so very attentive to our moods ("mek-ju han byung du ju-seyo!"). The second we were finished with the brisket, the pork belly was sliding into our bowls. While it was delicious, fatty, and chewy, in that good, thick porcine way, a part of us regretted our decision to switch out the chicken, mainly because we realized Be-One really knows what it's doing, and because the beef bulgogi was really the highlight of the meal, perfectly tender with that explosion of sweetish marinade and savory warm beef.

But both varieties of ribs were almost as good. At some point we were all so thoroughly stoned off of the sheer animal power coursing through our veins that we could no longer think, only enjoy.

The feast ended with some dumplings and little bottles of Korean yogurt. We'd be remiss not to point out that we brought a vegetarian friend-obviously not one who judges meat-eaters-who hates most other Korean joints in town because of their paltry vegetarian options. She wasn't excited about some flavorless udon soup, and the server recommended dolsot bibimbap ($11.99) instead, which was full of fresh veggies and rice and topped with a fried egg. (Without the egg the dish is both vegan and gluten-free.) The server told her they can prepare a number of other dishes without meat.

A seventh friend showed up at the last minute to help us finish the last little bits of meat and the dozen or so Hites we had ordered. For $162, seven of us were stuffed and extraordinarily happy. If this is what Psy means when he sings about "Gangnam Style," then we'll be riding our ponies back to Be-One often.

Be-One is open Sunday through Wednesday from 11-12 a.m., Thursday through Saturday from 11-2 a.m.