Repeat after me: ishiyaki bibimba, ishiyaki bibimba, ishiyaki bibimba. Once you've memorized this mantra and eaten this Japanese comfort food, you'll feel at peace and all will be right with the world.
In Juban Restaurant's verbiage, this dish is described as, "sizzling rice cooked in a clay bowl topped with seasoned vegetables, beef, and fried egg. Served with spicy chili pepper paste (gochujang)." That straightforward description doesn't do this dish justice, however, and its modest looks don't convey its complex and enlightened flavor. To me, ishiyaki bibimba is a dish worth savoring for every last morsel of crispy rice, for every drop of the delectable chili pepper paste, for the combination of flavors in the rice, beef, spinach, bean sprouts, and bits of fried egg. The egg comes served triumphantly on top of the dish, glistening, and then you or the waitress stir it into the rest of the magical concoction until it's thoroughly combined.
This dish is a perfect example of the savory umami flavor, one of the five basic tastes sensed by the human tongue. Considered a fundamental taste in Asian cooking, umami is most commonly found in the flavors of beef, mushrooms, soy sauce, some cheeses, and miso. The variety of textures too makes this dish a delight: the crispy, soft rice combines nicely with the chewy bits of beef, firm spinach greens, slightly crunchy bean sprouts, and creamy egg. Every bite is different, every bite is divine. Be careful of the clay pot because it really is hot. If you let the dish rest for a while in it, then the rice on the bottom turns crispy and chewy, just the way I like it. It's usually a bit too much food for me, but my daughter always asks to share so no food is left over.
That's not all that Juban has to offer. It's a Japanese restaurant with a Korean BBQ flair, one with a grill built into the table so you get to cook most of the meal. We usually order beef short ribs, chicken, asparagus, and potatoes with butter to cook. Even the kids get in on the action, using the tongs to cook the meat to their liking. Juban also has delicious salads, especially the lettuce cucumber salad with miso dressing. They have a nice egg drop soup, and offer an assortment of mochi ice cream flavors including coffee, strawberry, green tea, and mango, although it's less expensive to buy the mochi ice cream at Trader Joe's. The service is always efficient and friendly, but you need to ask for forks if anyone in your group isn't adept enough with chopsticks. It's one of the rare restaurants where all five in our family leave happy and content. Give it a try, and remember the mantra: ishiyaki bibimba.