Shila BBQ (3812 W Newberry Road). We all know the story by now about this all-you-can-eat DIY Korean BBQ joint. A month ago, I discovered their website and logo were copied exactly from a restaurant of the same name in California. Despite the owner’s claim that his cousin (who owns the California locations) gave him permission, the Gainesville location now has a different website and the logo is now red. The warning signs continued as their menu had a “premium” section where you had to pay more to get certain meats, a 90 minute dining limit, and discounts for children only if they were between 40” to 56” tall. Even worse, before opening, a reader who got a job there told me he received just a couple hours of training and wasn’t even interviewed when he applied for the job. A couple days into opening, the fire department was called as the fire alarms in the building went off. All signs pointed to disaster.
Since my posting and ensuing public uproar, the “premium” section is now gone, and the all-you-can eat dinner is $18.99 a person while the lunch is $13.99 a person. The restriction on the height of your children remains, but I wasn’t sure about the 90 minute time limit. So I wandered in with some friends tonight, and proceeded to stay there…………for the next two and a half hours.
The first moment you walk into the former Stonewood Grill location, you’ll notice the owners spent a hell of a lot of money renovating the place. It’s a very nice dining area, with large TVs placed throughout, and a well-vented table top grill at each booth. Though I could have gone without the flashing lights and faux-marble in the entrance area that made the place seem more like a Hong Kong karaoke bar. As we sat down, we were greeted with side dishes of Cucumber Kimchi, regular Kimchi, a cold sesame noodle, pickled radish, and strange potato salad-like mashed potatoes. They were all ok, but definitely don’t compare to what you’d get at say…Garlic & Ginger. On the table were also a plate of jalapenos and garlic cloves, some fish sauce, “house sauce”, sesame oil, and a Korean chili sauce.
The deal is this; you get a choice of 4 meats from the menu. Once you have consumed those, you are welcomed to choose a different combination. Choices include a beef or pork bulgogi, various cuts of steak, chicken, pork belly, beef tongue, octopus, squid, pork neck, calamari, shrimp, and veggies. You also have the option of the Korean Seafood Pancake (almost like a seafood omelet) which was solid, and a Tofu Kimchi Soup. Make your selection, the server will brush some oil onto your grill, and you’re off.
I was a little bit sketched out when the server used a foam brush to apply oil to the grill, it just didn’t seem like a foam brush would work very well as evident by its frazzled tip that looked half melted. But I digress. Our first plate of raw meat arrived. It was incredibly small, and looked like someone brought you some samples from a midget butcher shop. The grill was also not hot enough to cook on for some time. But once it got going, the meat was completely bland and flavorless. I also found it odd that the shrimp came unpeeled, so one of my friends volunteered to prep the raw goodness at the table. Not exactly sanitary. None of the meats were pre-seasoned other than the bulgogi and the chicken dishes, and those could have used a little more time in the marinade. So we started experimenting.
We very quickly figured out the formula for optimal tastiness. Ask for some salt and pepper, then mix the chili sauce with the sesame oil. Season your meat and generously pour your sesame chili mixture all over it before placing on the grill. If they offer to replace your grill top (and they will do that a lot), tell them no. Once you get a nice char on the grill, that’s when the flavors begin to come out. This is not a place I would recommend to anyone who doesn’t have some experience cooking. The chances of cross-contamination are high with your cooking tongs and the small surface, and you could end up with some undercooked chicken or pork that may send you on a one-way trip to toilet land.
But as the refill plates kept coming, and the grill became more “seasoned”, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the experience. Suddenly, the sketchy oil brush, unpeeled shrimp, and unseasoned blandness didn’t matter as I enjoyed concocting my own flavors and cooking my food. I started thinking about how awesome it’d be to watch a football game there, and be cooking some meats at a comfortable table with friends.
It would appear that there are still many kinks to be worked out at Shila, but it was a much more enjoyable experience than I had anticipated. The service left something to be desired as I had to ask for a refill on several occasions, the complete mess left on our table without being bussed, and the small plates of meat. Seriously, if they brought us two decent sized plates, we wouldn’t have to go through so many re-orders.
Eventually, the novelty is going to wear off. But for now, it’s pretty darn fun. Pleased to say that after sitting there for two and a half hours, we didn’t get kicked out. Not sure if our server was simply too busy to care, or if the rule was actually removed. Is it worth the money? It really depends on how much you can eat. Is it super good quality meats? Absolutely not. Is it even real Korean food? Definitely not, it’s not even opened by Koreans. Is it super fun and a good time? Totes. It’s worth a trip. Make sure you try the pork bulgogi, the NY Strip Steak, and the seafood pancake. Most of all, just have fun with it, experiment with the sauces, let that grill get nice and seasoned. I’m happy to report my preconceived notions were mostly wrong, and I had a wonderful time tonight. But if you want the good stuff, stick with Garlic & Ginger.