Ode to the Slimy Hagfish
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Jae Bu Do: Koreatown's Extreme Seafood Grill."
Some restaurants you leave smiling. Other restaurants you leave burning with the fury of a thousand suns. But after an evening at Jae Bu Do, a seafood grill on the outer edge of Koreatown, you leave feeling as if you have escaped from a battlefield: bone-sore, stinking, your shirt speckled with tiny, burnt holes. Every item of clothing you wear will undoubtedly be saturated with the various exudations of the sea; the scent of smoldering charcoal, from the pit in the middle of each table, will survive the costliest shampoo. Your fingers will be blistered from the heat of charred clamshells; your lips will sting where they have encountered hidden pockets of boiling juice. If you have ever for a moment entertained a Buddhist thought, the ghosts of a hundred creatures whirl around your head in a sea of karmic consequence. If you are going to a movie afterward, you will have the row to yourselves.
Even without the aftermath, Jae Bu Do may seem a bit extreme the first time you visit. It is the one restaurant in its mini-mall without a hint of an English-language sign, and you'll probably linger in the doorway for a while before somebody points you to a table. You study posters on the wall picturing crab, squid and hagfish — hagfish! — that you bravely attempt to order, and you are instead handed a menu whose options are limited to combinations A, B or C, which vary more in size than they do in content. You will have gotten drinks (and may God be with you if you end up with the house's bottled dong dong ju, which tastes like what might be left over from a bowlful of sake-moistened Frosted Flakes), eaten a crisp scallion pancake and perhaps a fried smelt, and watched a mass of beaten egg pulse like a lava lamp in its superheated stone bowl. You may have actually Googled "hagfish" on your cell phone, and recoiled when you find it described as the slimiest creature in the sea. You will be handed a single white glove, which you will resist putting on until you look around the restaurant and see a roomful of Michael Jacksons.
A waitress comes over to the table and scatters Manila clams across the hot wire grill. Your job is to pick them up at just the moment the shells pop open, tug out the meat and dip it in a bit of the chile sauce called gochujang. (This is where the glove comes in handy.) Tiny, sweet scallops on the half-shell seethe in juices and butter. Tiny, brothy sea snails simmer in a cup fashioned from aluminum foil. Clam innards boil in what looks like a Sierra cup. Large clamshells sizzle until the waitress comes by to wrench them apart, shortly before she pries open gigantic oysters, the size of Air Jordans, and scissors apart the fist-size meats. Whole prawns nestle on the grill — when they start to blacken, they're done — next to langoustines, which will not make you forget the ocean-fresh examples you may have tasted at Taillevent or Ducasse. If you have ordered one of the pricier dinners, there will be chewy bits of abalone sizzled in their shells, and maybe more scallops sliced into spicy broth. Toward the end, a few tiny octopuses make it onto the grill. If you don't fish them off within a minute or two, they will have died in vain.
This is the part where we talk about hagfish: a wormlike creature, neither vertebrate nor invertebrate, that survives by secreting a special kind of fibrous slime that effectively closes up attackers' gills; a single hagfish can produce quarts of the stuff. When hagfish are hungry — they can survive for as long without food as a bedbug — they are fond of burrowing into the bellies of their victims and consuming them from the inside out. If a fisherman is unlucky enough to pull up hagfish in his or her net, the other fish in the catch will be ruined. How does a hagfish clear away excess slime? It quite literally ties itself into a knot, which moves along its horrible length.
But nothing about hagfish may be quite so alarming as watching a mess of them, skinned and gutted, thrown onto a charcoal grill. The long, eel-like filets writhe, they contort, they twist around one another like the serpents on Asclepius' staff, before shrinking into tiny bicycle tires on the grate. The hagfish are painted with sweet chile sauce and cut into 2-inch lengths. You wrap them in gaennip leaves with sliced chiles and raw garlic cloves, which help to kill the taste but not the awful cartilaginous crunch. You wish that you were anywhere else, eating anything else. And a minute later, you are.
The hagfish is whisked away. Sweet potatoes are buried in the embers to roast, like mickeys. A giant bowl of noodles makes it to the table, long and fresh and chewy, simmering in a peppery clam broth. The hagfish is long forgotten. Soon, so are the sweet potatoes — the waitress will fashion them into something that looks like a bamboo-handled Gucci purse made of foil instead of leather.
It is at this point that you look down and realize you are still wearing a clam-stained white knit glove. You raise a glass to Michael Jackson and slip off into the night.
JAE BU DO: 474 N. Western Ave., L.A. (323) 467-2900. Open daily, from 3 p.m. MC, V. Beer, wine and soju. Valet parking. Set dinners for 2-4 people, $39.99-$89.99.
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