From the archives: A birthday party to remember

So, I’m outta here. This coming June, after nearly 18 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I will move with my family to Chicago, where my wife has a shiny new job waiting. I hear it’s beautiful there in February.

Seriously, it has been an honor and a pleasure to serve as a columnist for this newspaper. I always cherish notes from readers who let me know that a recipe of mine ended up on their Thanksgiving table or that they celebrated a big birthday at a restaurant I recommended.

In the meantime, I’ve got a few weeks coming up during which I’ll be working on a project and need to take a hiatus from this column. My editor thought it would be fun to reprint old columns that connected particularly well with readers. As I looked through the archives, I saw these mostly involved tales of my kids growing up. I hope I haven’t been too self-indulgent in this regard, but what is any discussion of food without a personal connection, and what is more personal than family?

To start, here is a column from May 1999 about an unusual birthday party at a now-defunct Korean restaurant. After it was published, so many people came up to me to say their kids would never, ever try Korean food.

“Have you tried?” I always asked in response.

When my oldest daughter turned 5, she wanted a sushi-and-pinata party. I don’t think she wanted the sushi in the pinata, but you can never tell with a 5-year-old.

That was three years ago. Last week, with the big 8 looming, she proposed another unusual birthday party. Guess what? It wasn’t pizza at Chuck E. Cheese.

No, this adventurous chow puppy thought to invite a gaggle of little girls to a Korean restaurant for tabletop barbecue. She wanted the thin, marinated beef called “bulgogi” with all the trimmings: rice, pickles, bean sauce and lettuce-leaf wrappers. The kids would love it, she said.

So, with some trepidation, I reserved a private room at Hanwoori in Chamblee. This expensive-looking compound must play host to all sorts of events for Atlanta’s Korean community — wedding receptions, formal dinner parties, high-stakes business meetings — but not, I think, groups of 8-year-olds in pointy “Sesame Street” birthday hats.

We arrived Saturday night with a klatch of hat-topped girls, two baby sisters, a pair of visiting grandparents and a pink-and-yellow sheet cake from Kroger in tow.

The manager couldn’t have looked more surprised if we had had a tap-dancing pig bringing up the rear. “Aahhhh, birthday party, ” he said with a flabbergasted smile. “Come in! Please come in!” This gracious soul actually acted happy to see us.

A poised waitress in a conservative uniform led us into a large room set with cooktop tables and slid the door closed behind her. The kids, being kids, promptly started bouncing off the walls: swatting balloons, crawling under tables, spearing chopsticks through their hair.

When the waitress delivered little dishes of spicy dumpling dip to each place, they rushed back to their seats to swipe their fingers through the sauce.




Things weren’t looking up at the Korean barbecue birthday party.

The dumplings themselves — delicious pan-fried yaki-mandu — met with more approval and disappeared quickly.

The waitress fired up the tabletop braziers and dumped platters of beef onto the cast-iron pans. The children were mesmerized by the smells, the sizzle, the fire. Even the littlest baby sister climbed back into her highchair to watch the show.

The waitress tonged the meat onto our plates and — amazing, but true — the room fell silent. As at a successful dinner party, everyone was too busy eating to talk.

These kids ate every last scrap of beef. They ate all the rice. They ate the sweet cucumber pickles and bean sprouts, and drank cups of shik-keh, a sweet, chilled rice drink that ends the meal.

After barbecue, we lit the candles, cut off the lights and sang “Happy Birthday” loud enough to rock the house. As we cut the cake, various Korean children appeared at the door.

“Cake for the house,” we told the waitress, who helped us disburse thick-with-frosting slices and balloons to every child who came our way. One Kroger sheet cake, we found out, goes on forever.

I can’t say enough nice things about the sainted wait staff at Hanwoori. They made us feel welcome. They saw to it that we didn’t order too much, but then supplied extra rice and cake services at no charge.

Of course, it would have been a disaster if one of the invitees had gone up in flames. But those gas-powered barbecue tables are pretty safe.

All this cost about $10 a head, or about a dollar more than one of those Chuck E. Cheese whoop-de-doos.

Still, that wasn’t the most amazing part of the Korean barbecue birthday party. The most amazing part was the next morning, after the stay-up-till-3 a.m. sleepover, when I offered to rustle up a pile of pancakes.

“Ugh, ” moaned one little girl. “Pancakes upset my stomach.”

“They’re loaded with sugar, ” whined another.

So what do little girls want for breakfast after Korean barbecue? Bagels and cream cheese.