Even for Koreatown, L.A. Toad was a mysterious restaurant, a Seoul-style snack shop whose untranslated menu was written on the chopstick wrappers, a place with as many different kinds of pancakes as an IHOP, boiled pork innards garnished with raw oysters, and a fairly delicious bibimbap, a sort of hot tossed rice salad that may or may not have included bits of actual amphibian.
The first time I visited the restaurant, I was guided through the specialties by a customer with the elaborate manners of Christopher Walken’s character in the Paul Schrader movie The Comfort of Strangers, and ended up tasting a couple of interesting if stinky boiled things I was never able to order again. On subsequent visits, I probably could have asked for toasted sea cucumber, Dodger Dogs or Ghanaian groundnut stew without it affecting what I was served. The starchy progression of potato pancakes, mung-bean pancakes and toadless bibimbap was as inevitable, and in its way as comforting, as the Red Sox‘s annual September swoon.
Toad disappeared a couple of years ago, leaving its particular corner of Koreatown bibimbap-free. And then just as suddenly it popped up again as Toad House, a Korean pork-specialty restaurant, no beef, no fish, no oysters, but a pleasant bamboo-screened patio where the locals put out more smoke than the barbecue pits and the walls are decorated with adorable photographs of tiny black pigs.
The basic unit of consumption at Toad House is the combination meal for two, a sort of porcine tasting menu -- including a bottle of the low-powered sweet-potato hooch sojuk -- designed to take you on a tour of the tiny black pig and all of its constituent parts.
First up (after the usual kimchis and such) are the pig’s trotters, red-cooked with spices and served in cool slices reassembled back into the shape of a cloven hoof. If you‘ve ever loved the cold beef-tendon appetizer at a northern Chinese restaurant, you will probably recognize the firm, slightly rubbery texture, the anise-scented meat, and the speed with which a big platter of the stuff seems to evaporate into air -- you dip the hoof into little sauces of salty vinegar. The plate of shredded pork skin is an almost exact replica of the fried rice-cake dish that finds its way onto most Korean menus, curly and soft, sauteed with sweet bean sauce, onions and peppers.
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Should you be of a mind to order the mung-bean pancakes, the plump circles are crunchy-crusted, pleasantly oily, as steamy and fragrant inside as a great Hanukkah latke; the egg-battered seafood pancakes called pajon, despite their extravagant use of artificial crab, are just fine.
But the centerpiece of the meal, Toad House’s reason for being, is undoubtedly the barbecued pork belly -- the meaty, streaky, especially succulent strips of fat meat brought out to the table looking like nothing so much as a pound of uncured bacon, that you sizzle into crispness on a tabletop grill. A waitress ignites the cone-shaped grill, snips the meat into bite-size squares, and supervises the festivities from a corner of the dining room, rushing over to move the pork away from the heat if you should be so careless as to let all of its succulence dribble away.
The belly hisses, it sputters, it bleeds delicious fat down onto a halo of shiitake mushrooms that surrounds it on the grill, and when it is finally crisp, you roll it with shreds of spicy scallion salad into a slippery square of rice noodle, swab it with what appears to be an elegant dust made from powdered beans, and dip it into a sort of chile-spiked Korean ponzu. The little belly rolls are fantastic things, spicy and sweet, soft and crisp, an apparent cardiac nightmare crammed with enough vegetables to make even an internist smile.
4503 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 460-7037. Lunch Monday--Saturday, dinner nightly. Beer and rice wine. Guarded lot parking. Combination meals for two or three, $25--$50, including soju. MC, V. Recommended dishes: cold pig‘s foot; black pork belly barbecue; mung-bean pancakes.