Jeon's joint is all about grilled meats — particularly the beef short ribs that customers cook themselves on gas-burning grills in the center of this restaurant's tables.
"The price of beef in Korea is the highest in the world," Jeon said as he watched one of his servers turn up the blue flames on one of the compact grills (each is about the size of a standard cookie sheet) and unroll a thin strip of marinated short rib over the fire. "But people love barbecue, just like they do in Kansas City."
But unlike Kansas City, which is loaded with barbecue restaurants, South Korea has had to do without American beef for nearly four years. Last month, a processing plant in Arkansas City, Kansas, sent its beef to South Korea in one of the first U.S. shipments since 2003. That was the year Seoul banned beef from the States. Jeon, like most local restaurateurs who serve beef, won't utter the name of the bovine illness that provoked the ban.
The compact, muscular Jeon has his own reasons for emphasizing the positive when it comes to eating meat. He's not just a restaurant owner; he's in the healthy-living business. He originally moved to Manhattan, Kansas, to study engineering but decided to take a few career turns instead. Now he's attending chiropractic school in addition to running his restaurant.
Jeon and his wife created Chosun Korean BBQ — named for one of the earliest Korean empires — in a narrow space between a tae kwon do studio and a Subway sandwich shop in a strip at 126th Street and Metcalf. They're about six minutes away from Overland Park's other two Korean restaurants, Choga Korean Restaurant at 105th and Metcalf and Chung's Rainbow Restaurant at 103rd and Metcalf.
Theirs is a pretty room but not fancy, and the service is eccentric, to put it kindly. Jeon's young servers are friendly but not especially attentive, and there's enough of a language barrier to lead to some unintentionally hilarious misunderstandings.
On the night that I dined with Kym and Stuart, we ordered some iced tea along with a plate of very good pan-fried beef-and-vegetable dumplings. Our server brought each of us a glass tumbler filled with slightly murky water. I asked the young man if this was iced tea, and he nodded. "It's corn tea. Iced corn tea. Very good."
"It tastes like dirty water," Kym whispered. But we bravely sipped the brew, which wasn't unpleasant. It just wasn't tea.
When Jeon came into the dining room, I asked about the corn tea and he laughed. "It's not made with corn. It's made with wheat. And it's not actually tea. In Korea, the water can be very stinky and polluted, so we boil it with a little corn or wheat for flavor. This is what we drink instead of water." By the time he brought us glasses of traditional iced tea, I was kind of into the wheat beverage.
Kym ordered her favorite Korean dish, bibim bap — a bowl of steamed rice mixed with vegetables, beef and fried egg. It's what she orders most of the time at the Royal China Restaurant on Shawnee Mission Parkway, which offers both Chinese and Korean fare. She liked Chosun's better, and it's certainly a hefty version of Korea's favorite one-bowl dish. Stuart ordered young yang galbi, a steamy beef broth full of short ribs, chestnuts, ginseng and mushrooms. He thought it tasted like good ol' Midwestern oxtail soup.