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Korean barbecue offers a deliciously interactive dining experience.

Hot off the Hibachi

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If you think real barbecue is the sole province of Kansas City or the Lone Star State, the next time you get a hankerin' for some grilled meat and sauce, head over to Young Bin Kwan in Richmond's "Little Seoul" for some "fire beef."

Young Bin is the only Korean restaurant in Richmond, located in the northeast corner of Chippenham Square off Midlothian Turnpike, also home to A Chau Oriental market and Korean Books bookstore. Young Bin Kwan presents Korean food in a variety of steamed, fried and sautéed dishes, as well as Japanese sushi, and a handful of Chinese selections. But in Korean cuisine, barbecue ranks as the most popular dish among Westerners and the most fun to experience.

Friends introduced us to this 10-year-old restaurant and the concept of Korean barbecue. And they were good about keeping its secrets safe until we arrived. Korean barbecue is not your pulled-pork or minced beef on a bun deal, but more along the lines of a backyard cookout where you marinate meat and char it over coals or gas-heated lava rocks. Only here it's done indoors, first by your server and then by you.

There are a number of regular tables in the front of the restaurant, but if one is available, ask to sit in a private room in the back, where behind saloon doors you sit around a rectangular table in the middle of which is a sunken gas-fired hibachi. Overhead is a vent hood and fire-suppression equipment just in case things get out of control.

As with all barbecue, the essence is the sauce, and Korean barbecue sauce will give any homemade recipe a run for its money. Generally, the sauce is prepared from onions, sugar, garlic, wine or sake, and soy sauce. Other ingredients can include sesame oil, ground sesame seeds, scallions, red chili pepper and sherry. Young Bin's recipe blends these ingredients into a balanced, piquant brown paste that also includes soybeans for added depth.

For four of us, we called up two orders of pork and two orders of beef barbecue ($14.95 per order). But before they arrived, about a dozen bowls with small portions of side items (included in the price) showed up including kimchee (fermented spicy cabbage), spicy cucumber, small bean sprouts, seaweed and chunks of pickled potatoes. These are not appetizers, and if you dive right in you'll miss out on the chance to blend these flavors with your barbecue, which arrives a bit later, raw and bathed in the spicy special sauce.

Starting your meal with soup, though, is a good idea. Ours included hot and sour soup, won tang soup (a fresh combination of egg-drop and wonton soups), and seaweed soup so fresh tasting it floated me back to my youth wallowing in the salty waves off Cape Cod.

But back to the barbecue. When the waitress brought our soup, she fired up the sunken hibachi and placed an oiled, arched grill over top of it. It heated quickly and was ready by the time she reappeared with two large oval platters of sauce-smothered sliced pork and beef, as well as two plates of romaine lettuce leaves, several plates of barbecue sauce, and four rectangular and slightly curved plates.

With tongs — and good cheer — she grabbed hunks of meat and heaped them on the grill. When the iron grate was covered, she politely left the room and left the rest of the cooking to us. The meat sizzled while we finished our soup. You have to move the meat around some, of course, to get it thoroughly cooked, and the heat isn't even. But once it's done, you move it down the sides of the grill into a narrow holding trough and toss on some more. And then you eat.

Here's how it's done: Tear off a small section of lettuce, put it on your plate, and using chopsticks or a fork (available by special request only) take a piece of meat and place it in the middle of the lettuce. Take a clump of rice, put it over the meat and scoop up some of the special sauce, roll it up and pop it in your mouth. The mix of vibrant flavors with soft rice and silky lettuce is a unique experience. Then try a little kimchee, the peppery national side dish of Korea.

To complete your authentic experience, have some cold sake and after-dinner Korean

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