Baek Hwa Jung: Kogi's Choice
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Kogi's Choice: Roy Choi's Favorite Korean Cafe, Baek Hwa Jung."
If you ask Kogi czar Roy Choi to name a favorite restaurant, he tends to get shy on you, occasionally praising the dining room he visited most recently, or a place owned by a friend, or a grand restaurant in New York. He may be famous for commanding a fleet of Korean taco trucks, but he did put in time at Le Bernardin — few of the kitchens in town, one gathers, are up to his standards. But when you ask Choi about Korean food, his jaw relaxes, his glare softens, and he begins to fiddle with his Dodgers cap. He daydreams out loud about the spicy rice noodles he used to eat from street stands in Seoul when he visited as a teenager; the blood sausage, the fish so fresh that it still splashed in its plastic bucket. He talks about driving the Kogi truck from the compound south of downtown and trembling with hunger when he inhales the cooking smells floating from Koreatown at dusk.
He likes the hand-cut noodles at Ma Dang Gook Soo, as well he should, and the inky chachiangmian at the Korean-Chinese restaurant Dragon, and the cow's head sullongtang, at Yong Dong, which is an ever-fascinating bowl of soup. He also likes the fermented-soybean soup at a restaurant whose name I'm forgetting at the moment, a concoction whose stink is so fearsome that it probably causes crows to drop out of the sky. But the restaurant he mentions the most, which I'd never run across even in the decade I lived in the neighborhood, is Baek Hwa Jung, a corner café in the oldest part of Koreatown, with an untranslated sign on its awning, a slightly faded air, and customers who are probably the parents of the guys in line at Kogi.
You may have driven past Baek Hwa Jung 200 times, and unless you happened to sniff the air, chances are pretty good that you never considered slowing down. But if you stroll down Olympic in the early evening, the sweet, burnt-pork vapors drifting from the restaurant are enough to make you weep, or at least to break into a happy trot toward the source of that magnificent smoke.
Almost every restaurant in Koreatown specializes in one dish or another. It is our good fortune that this one decided to specialize in daeji galbi, barbecued pork ribs. Even if you prefer the pork at Hamji Park, the other great rib specialist in the area, it is hard to resist these tender, caramelized, char-flecked bones.
Still, for all the magnificence of the ribs, Baek Hwa Jung is not quite a barbecue restaurant, and its pork is sizzled over a fire in the open kitchen rather than at a grill set into your table. Every table at the restaurant will probably have an order of daeji galbi on it at some point in the evening.
But the restaurant's other famous specialty is gool bossam, a simmered pork-belly dish served here in its most rustic version (a more elegant take is at Kobawoo over on Vermont Avenue) — which is an elaborate, communal course ideally suited to a night of serious drinking, a fatty, spicy, highly flavored thing that leans into your second bottle of soju like a motorcyclist grinding into a curve. An order of the ribs and an order of the bossam, plus maybe a spicy, stewlike jjigae if you're in the mood, is more than enough for four. Are there panchan, the small plates that traditionally precede a Korean meal? Sure, about 10 of them, plus a delicious bowl of bean sprouts in clear broth.
But there is the matter of the gool bossam, which has more parts than a Revell dragster and may be more complicated to assemble: a pound or so of sliced belly arranged around the platter like dominoes, a mound of scarlet turnip kimchi, a dozen shucked oysters if you order them, and a special, mild yet pungent cabbage kimchi stacked as precisely as two decks of cards. There will be leaves to wrap things in, in this case the sweet, yellow inner leaves of napa cabbage cooked just enough to make them supple, and a small dish of sliced raw chilies and garlic. One dish holds a crimson chili sauce you are meant to dip your oysters into, and another holds an extra-salty dip made with tiny shrimp. You sluice, pile and arrange your chosen ingredients on a leaf of the cabbage, fold, and dip into the shrimp sauce — superb — and repeat until you see the bottom of the plate. And if you don't see the bottom of the plate, the waitress will pack up the pork and the kimchi for you, and give you the directions for making a tasty soup with them at home. Don't tell Choi, but I think you can make a pretty good taco with them, too.
BAEK HWA JUNG: 3929 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown. (323) 935-5554. Open for lunch and dinner, Tues.-Sun. MC, V. Beer, wine and soju. Recommended dishes: gool bossam with oysters, pork belly and kimchi, $25.40; barbecued pork ribs, $18.95
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