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Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong Is the Restaurant Koreatown Didn't Know It Needed 

Thursday, Sep 20 2012
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See more of Anne Fishbein's photography from Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong.

It's around dusk inside Chapman Plaza, a small, cobblestone-lined courtyard hidden from view in the approximate geographical center of Koreatown. By this time of day, most of the coffee houses, boutiques and hair salons that comprise the plaza's daytime economy have closed. The parking lot has become a gridlock of Mercedes, Audis and the occasional Range Rover, with orange vest–clad valets darting in between cars. Twinkling LCD signs advertise things like two-for-one soju bottles and private karaoke rooms.

We are not here, however, for pitchers of pineapple soju or velvet-lined VIP booths. We are waiting for a table at the complex's newest addition, a barbecue place called Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, which opened about eight months ago.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN - Grilling rib-eye

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The restaurant is part of a Seoul-based chain run by comedian and former wrestler Kang Ho Dong, a guy who might best be described as an ebullient mix of Jack Black and The Rock (with a tax-evasion scandal thrown in). His image is plastered around the restaurant, in the form of little pulp comics and two life-size cardboard cutouts that stand at the front door. Taking pictures with the cutouts is not only acceptable but encouraged. Ho Dong bears more than a passing resemblance to the Korean singer PSY, performer of the ultra-catchy K-pop mega-hit "Gangnam Style" — so much so that your server might even go out of his way to mention this to you, especially when the song itself inevitably blasts over the loudspeakers.

There are no reservations, and the wait list is long even on weeknights, meaning that most people end up sipping a few pitchers of Hite at the pub next door or loitering against the courtyard's lampposts. When your name is finally called, you're led into what's essentially a giant mess hall — bustling, noisy, hazy with smoke — crammed with short, round tables fashioned out of what look like old milk cans.

It's basically a better lit, less claustrophobic version of Korean dive bars like Dwit Gol Mok and Dan Sung Sa; the floors are bare concrete and the walls are covered in aluminum siding and burnished wood. Even the dishware looks like something rationed from an army barracks. You get the feeling it won't be long until people starting scrawling Hangul love messages on the wall in Sharpie.

A group of young Koreans at the table next to you is polishing off its latest bottle of soju — the place pretty much runs on the stuff — while you look over the palm-sized, cartoon-covered menu. The waitstaff seems almost impossibly coordinated. They whiz between tables, replacing pitchers of chilled barley tea and empty plates with impressive speed, as gracious and alacritous with barbecue neophytes as they are with demanding veterans.

To start the meal, a few banchan are set before you, including a bean sprout and green onion salad walloped with gochujang; a chilled bowl of pickled radish broth; the miniature latkes known as pajeon; a wedge of kabocha squash drizzled with syrup and roast nuts; and what might be the oldest and funkiest bowl of kimchi I've ever tasted (that's a plus, depending on who you ask).

The tabletop grill itself, powered by a hybrid of two large charcoal logs and leaping gas flames, is encircled by a shallow trench divided into quadrants. Inside one is a mix of unmelted mozzarella cheese and corn. Another holds kimchi, another an assortment of onions and peppers, and the last is filled when a server arrives with a large copper kettle and pours a raw egg mixture into the divot, creating a bright yellow moat between you and the meat. Over the course of the meal, little trickles of fat drip downward; the vegetables soften, the cheese melts and the egg becomes, well, scrambled egg — still, it's a vast improvement over the watery steamed egg typically served at most places.

Baekjeong literally translates to "butcher" in Korean, meaning that while Ho Dong might have never touched a meat cleaver in his life, he has sought to connect his name with high-quality cuts. Inch-thick slabs of pork belly are sliced against the grain so they fan out like miniature accordions, enabling more of the surface area to render and become lusciously crisp. You know it's a good sign when the staff wear shirts emblazoned with cartoon pigs (apparently one of Ho Dong's nicknames translates to "piggy").

Best might be the tender slabs of unseasoned pork short rib, which are boneless dwaeji galbi essentially, or the pork belly shaved thin and tossed in a spicy sauce that the waitress takes back to the kitchen to be cooked for you — it's better that way, she insists.

It's a good idea to ask for konggomul, a toasted soybean flour that looks like something Jose Andres might dust his plates with. You dip the meat into the superfine powder, and it rehydrates just enough from the meat juices to transform into something creamy and slightly sweet.

The meat selection doesn't veer into the exotic — there are no offal cuts, and no seafood — and your choices generally come down to the question of whether you favor swine or bovine. While the pink curls of chadol, or thin-sliced brisket, are pretty much what you'll find anywhere, the beef short ribs are well-marbled beauties, and the hefty slab of rib-eye steak wouldn't be out of place on the menu at Lawry's.

You won't find Wagyu or Kobe cuts here, as you might at Park's down the road, but no one should decry the sheer quality available relative to the inexpensive price. There are no sheets of rice paper or sesame leaf wraps to be found, either, though the slightest dip into a small bowl of coarse sea salt is plenty satisfying. The waitresses are handy enough with the meat-shearing scissors to suggest the management might be hiring former seamstresses.

You could supplement your meal with a bowl of cold noodles swimming in more of that cold and tangy radish broth, though this time the broth is tinted red by floating chunks of watermelon and a dab of fermented chile paste, oddly but deliciously enough. The beef tartare, tossed with slivers of cucumber and sweet, uber-ripe Asian pears — which happen to be in peak season around this time of year — is an excellent refresher. The complementary soybean paste stew, called doenjang jjigae, is practically a meal in itself, fortified with bits of cooked brisket, fresh tofu and an ungodly amount of diced chiles.

The closest thing to dessert here might be the dosirak, an item listed on the menu as the "lunch box." It's basically a simplified bibimbap — a few scoops of rice, sprouted mung beans, seaweed, bean curd, kimchi and a whole fried egg — which arrives unmixed, stuffed inside what resembles a gold-colored cookie tin. Your server opens the lid and shows you the goods before closing the whole thing up and shaking the holy hell out of it, furiously enough to make the Varnish's bartenders look noodle-armed. The result is a kind of gooey fried rice saturated with egg yolk and pulverized kimchi. Your table will scrape the box clean.

Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong is the barbecue restaurant that Koreatown didn't know it needed — a uncompromising import that combines the impeccably sharp service and top-tier meat of more refined places like Genwa or Soowon with the rustic, atavistic pleasures of somewhere like Soot Bull Jeep. (Incidentally, Baekjeong might now claim the title of the smokiest restaurant in town — those large, metal ventilation hoods overhead might as well be functionless.)

Conventional wisdom holds that the days of high-end steakhouse, replete with white tablecloths and flower arrangements the size of compact cars, are hearing their death knell. Could the end of fancy Korean barbecue be far off? It's hard to think otherwise with the crowds amassing outside here — if you mentioned Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong as the most difficult restaurant in town to snag a table on a Saturday night, few people would doubt you.

Does that mean more cheesy corn, more buttery cuts of short rib, more violently shaken rice boxes — and, admittedly, much smokier clothes — are in our immediate future? If only we could be so lucky.

KANG HO DONG BAEKJEONG | 3465 W. Sixth St., Koreatown | (213) 384-9678 | Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sat.-Sun., 4:30 p.m.-1 a.m. | MC, V | Beer, wine and soju | Valet or street parking | Beef or pork combinations, feeds 2-3, $39.99-$44.99.

See more of Anne Fishbein's photography from Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong.

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