BBQ Crown opened three years ago in a tiny shack that previously housed a take-out coffee shop, in the same strip mall as Koreatown stalwart Mandarin House. The signage is riddled with Konglish, such as “Food Revelation” and “duck soup simmering with variety of healthy herbs." There's leftover branding from the original name of the restaurant, “Well Q's Famous Smoked Duck BBQ Lunch Special.” This isn't the sort of place that has a publicist, social media manager or blogosphere friends. Nor is it what it appears to be at first glance.
There's a lot more going on here than you might think.
The owner, Susan Lee, is quirky, soft-spoken and chatty. She reveals herself a little at a time. A mechanical engineer with a degree from USC, Lee quit her job at Hughes Aircraft to raise a family. With her children off at college, she decided to open BBQ Crown. She explains, "This is a showroom for a successful wholesale business. My whole smoked duck is sold in vacuum-sealed packs at Galleria market, California market and Angus meat market."
You wonder where she does all the cooking, because the only equipment that's apparent is a table-top oven and a hot plate. Then Lee opens a ramshackle patio door adjacent to her restaurant to reveal a $37,000 wood-burning smoker imported from Korea. "I have three more in a warehouse," she says. "I had them custom-made in Korea and paid to have them inspected and approved for restaurant use in America." The smokers can hold 36 whole ducks, and it takes three and a half hours to cook a day's batch. When asked if she does the notoriously difficult task of deboning the ducks herself, she quips, "Do you think I'm stupid?" Idiosyncratic, yes. Stupid, no. She's a one-woman tour de force who operates her business with the precision of an engineer. (And no, she doesn't do the deboning.)
Lee goes on to explain that the Konglish is intentional. Although born in Los Angeles, she lived in Korea for a few years, where she was exposed to Konglish in all its glory. And yes, that's a likeness of her wearing a crown at the center of the logo. It's all part of her bizarre branding strategy, one that offers a glimpse of her sense of humor. She didn't want her restaurant to have a slick, Americanized image.
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As you nibble on tender duck meat with a subtle but lingering smoke finish, you start to understand Lee's vision for a smoked duck kingdom. At $9.99, the duck lunch plate special is a bargain. It comes with two sauces (a tangy sweet mustard one and sambal olek), multigrain rice, duck broth, mashed potato salad and salad marinated in kimchi spices. The duck also can be ordered as a dinner plate, as a larger-format combo meals for two to four people, or vacuum-packed for later consumption.
Duck tacos — made with finely chopped duck meat tossed with a crunchy salad of shredded cabbage, julienned cucumbers and pico de gallo, topped with a dollop of sambal olek — are $2.25. Just when you think the world doesn't need another Korean taco, Lee proves you wrong by creating something that's very much outside the box of sweet meat with kimchi.
Wherever Lee's other three smokers end up, we'll be there, fork in hand.
BBQ Crown, 3076 W. Eighth St., Koreatown; (213) 905-8080; bbqcrown.com.