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With Great Korean Barbecue Comes Great Responsibility
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With Great Korean Barbecue Comes Great Responsibility


If you take a cross-country trek looking for the best barbecue in America and wind up in, I don't know, Texas, North Carolina, Kansas City, our next contributor would say, you've taken a wrong turn. Consider Los Angeles - specifically Koreatown - where he thinks Bulgogi Beef might just be the best. But, says Miles Bryan, customers first need to know how to order.

MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: So I'm new to Los Angeles, and there are a lot of things that I still don't get about the city. But something that's really caught my attention is the shiny plastic button you find on the tables of practically every Korean barbecue joint around here. That called for some field research.

DAVID CHANG: So when I press a bell, there's a table number two, and number two will show up right there.

BRYAN: David Chang (ph) is a waiter at Park's BBQ in Koreatown. They've been around for over 10 years and are a mainstay in the neighborhood. Chang says those buttons are basically just a paging system. You ding it to get your server's attention. Sounds simple but...

CHANG: No, a lot of people ask - they're, like, what does this do? Or sometimes they press it, and I go there and they're, like, oh I didn't know that was what it was for. I was, like, oh so you just pressed it?

BRYAN: They might have been tourists because the Angelenos I talked to said these call buttons are just part of eating Korean barbecue. Still nobody seemed to know where they came from or why they're so popular. So I called David Kang, head of the Korean Studies Institute at USC. I figured they must be a Korean thing - turns out, not really.

DAVID KANG: These call buttons are relatively new. In Korea, it is still common that when you want something, you just yell yogigo, or here, over here and you wave your arm. And then they come running over, and they're, like, what do you want?

BRYAN: Kang says these buttons are more of a phenomenon in Koreatown than in Korea. They only started showing up in the last few decades when non-Korean started to venture into K-town restaurants. Kang says that they're a way to bridge the gap between American and Korean dining cultures.

KANG: The American internal logic is your waiter comes over, they introduce themselves, they're friendly, they keep checking up on you. The Korean logic is, you're there to eat, and they don't bother you until you call them over.

JAKE AYERS: We'll do the Galbi ribs, and we'll also probably get some pork belly...

BRYAN: Jake Ayers (ph) is a tourist. He's down from Seattle. He hadn't even noticed the call button on his table, but when I told him how it worked, he thought it was a good idea.

AYERS: I think it makes sense in. Yeah. If you need to get someone's attention, and you don't necessarily want to flag them down like this, then, you know, you could be a little bit more elegant and just push a button.

BRYAN: Ayers gave the call button a try for the first time during that meal, then he tried it again.

AYERS: I think I might just do it one more time while you are here. Let's see what happens.

BRYAN: Maybe not. David Chang, the waiter at Park's BBQ, has this advice for the K-town newbies. Definitely hit the call button when you need something, but then just wait. Don't hit it again. For NPR, I'm Miles Bryan.

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