The spicy, fermented flavors of Korea are distinctive within this Asiatic melting pot. In places like Seoul Garden, Korea House, and Hahn's Hibachi, the delicious aromas of garlic, scallions, chiles, sesame oil, and pickled cabbage mingle with the fragrance of table-grilled meat, as diners take part in the cooking process to a degree unmatched beyond the hot pots of Mongolia and the fondue pots of Switzerland. Raw, marinated strips of beef, pork, chicken, and seafood and delicacies like tripe and tongue arrive at tables equipped with charcoal-burning central grills. The diner places the meat on the grill, turns it once, scoops a hot, tender morsel into a lettuce leaf with chopsticks, then samples a few of the dozen or so zesty condiments covering the table. With every mouthful one can experience spice, heat, and crunch personally calibrated to one's individual taste.
Brother's is a popular example of the genre, commonly known as "Korean barbecue." Located in an unprepossessing, low-ceilinged dining hall bereft of any aesthetic personality beyond faux wood and Formica, the restaurant has capacity crowds spilling out onto Geary Boulevard during the prime mealtime hours after noon and after 7. (Luckily, Brother's is one of San Francisco's few late-night dining establishments, serving the hungry and rambunctious until 2 in the morning.) Some of the overflowed folks venture a block east to the less popular Brother's II at 4014 Geary, an even tackier-looking place into which one of our party wandered by mistake and endured rude, dismissive service until she fled in self-defense. The original location's service isn't as bad, but it's practically impossible to obtain a spare napkin, a glass of water, a plate larger than a chocolate chip cookie, or anything beyond the food you order.
But such food! Its very abundance almost makes up for the lack of serving spoons. Within minutes of your order a dozen saucers piled with shards, chunks, ribbons, and shreds of edible exotica circle the grill. A stoker comes by with a bucket of red-hot coals and lowers it into the pit set into your table. Then a platter of glistening meat arrives, and the meal begins. We opted for the beef -- paper-thin, succulent, and dressed with a smoky, sweet marinade -- and skewers of onion, mushrooms, and tasteless prawns ("shrimp" on the menu) that could have used a baste or a dip or something. Fortunately, the shards and shreds that complement the meat are zesty and unique.
There's a sort of juicy jerky that's like beef reduced to its essential nature. There are lightly dressed bean sprouts that explode when you crunch into them. There's the classic Korean condiment, kim chee, a garlicky, peppery mixture of fermented cabbage and onion with plenty of afterbite. There are sweet-and-sour grated radish, flavorful tempeh strips, and dried sardines with an intense blast of heat. There are cubes of smooth, bland, glutinous rice; a crunchy, pickled, unidentified root vegetable or two; crisp squares of briny seaweed; and strips of cool cucumber in a light sesame-seed vinaigrette. As for the salty, chunky anchovy paste with the robust fermented aftertaste, it might be hot stuff in old Hyopchon but I'd be fine if I never had to experience its like again. Still, the other condiments are bracingly good -- ideal accompaniments to the warm meat and cool lettuce leaves.
Barbecue is only a small aspect of Brother's lengthy menu. It also offers half a dozen whole grilled fish; we opted for the king fish, a platter-covering, positively primordial sea beast with all of its teeth intact and the salty, meaty flavor of herring. Picked off with chopsticks and wrapped in its own cracker-crisp skin, its meat is wonderfully satisfying. Kim chee gets showcased in a rich, red, spicy quasi-goulash studded with beef, tofu, and the briny fermented cabbage. The classic jap chae doesn't live up to its reputation here: Although the translucent pan-fried rice noodles feel pleasantly silky, the beef, vegetables, and spices mixed up with them seem unexciting. But the hwe mul dot sot bop is a delight, similar in spirit to a bountiful paella. A deep kettle of creamy, saffron-scented rice brimmed with octopus, clams, prawns, spinach, and seaweed, and at the last minute we stirred in a raw egg for an added silky touch. The bottom of the kettle became crusted with the golden rice prized by paella connoisseurs from Catarroja to Kangnung. We concluded the meal with a time-honored (and unnamed) digestif: a lettuce leaf wrapped around shredded radish, a touch of soy sauce, and a sliver of grilled beef.
Other menu items include sashimi, tempura, and pan-fried dishes as well as fixed-price six-course meals for four or six people. The ideal potable accompaniment is OB, a lager from Seoul with all the depth and complexity of Pabst Blue Ribbon, but ideal nonetheless with the spicy flavors and smoky heat. A $2 pitcher of sake and a $2.50 glass of wine can be had by the viticulturally undiscerning.
The bill arrived with a mysterious glass of cool, clear liquid not unlike those unpleasantly sweet tapioca drinks served in Chinatowns around the Bay Area. A better dessert option is to head a block north and feast on a mango, blood orange, or persimmon from one of the Asian produce markets lining lower Clement -- all of them tasty representatives of Pacific-lapped San Francisco.