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Of Cumin Bondage: Korean at Feng Mao

Feng Mao: spicy pork with cilantro

Photo by Anne FishbeinFeng Mao: spicy pork with cilantro

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Koreatown may be best known as a land of fresh tofu, bibimbap and flowing soju, but the neighborhood is also famous for its embrace of foreign cuisines, from the proliferation of Vietnamese noodle shops to the pizza parlors, sushi bars, rathskellers and fried-chicken joints, all given a small but distinctive Korean spin. It is easier to find hand-pulled Chinese noodles here than it is in the Chinese San Gabriel Valley. The Korean take on the Viennese coffeehouse is rigorous.

But the oddest restaurant in Koreatown may be the barbecue joint Feng Mao, a nondescript corner dining room where northeastern Chinese cooks prepare the Beijing version of Xinxiang barbecue for a Korean-speaking clientele; Muslim-style cooking accompanied by little dishes of kimchi and presented in a pork-intensive, alcohol-intensive dining room. It’s the rough, rustic food of nomads, cooked on elegant tabletop grills in the middle of a megalopolis, a room blued with fragrant clouds of charred mutton and chicken wings, burnt chile and cumin, a hit of hardwood charcoal. Grilled meat may be the universal language, but the very existence of Feng Mao feels improbable, one of those cross-cultural carom shots that only seems to make sense within the context of L.A.

818, a Muslim barbecue restaurant in Rosemead, may have more exquisitely marinated mutton and crunchier chicken wings, but I have to admit, the beer adds a lot.

If you’ve been to the self-described “northern Chinese’’ restaurants in San Gabriel, you’ll probably be familiar with a lot of the nongrilled food here — the shredded meat stir-fried with chile and cilantro; rudimentary dumplings, mapo doufu; and twice-cooked something that turns out to be the sweet-and-sour pork your Uncle Manny used to insist on ordering for the table every Sunday night.

If you’ve been curious about the fake dog meat that sometimes pops up on the menus of these restaurants, it’s basically braised pork seasoned with vinegar, chile and cumin in what one is led to believe mimics the treatment given to the flesh of the unspeakable; you’ll find a warm, dryish version just ambiguous enough to put you off the dish for life. This may be the point.

But you’ve come to grill. And at the point when the waitress wanders by with fistfuls of sharp, meat-filled skewers, brandishing them like Freddy Krueger testing a new toy, you may find yourself hungrier than you’ve ever been.

You’ve seen those elaborate tabletop grills at restaurants like Chosun and Park’s? What Feng Mao has isn’t that — there are slightly sleeker versions of the basic grills you see on Chinese street-vendor carts, heavy iron frames describing roughly the dimensions of a shoebox, with a few coals smoldering in a depression underneath, and an adjustable gas jet that supplies most of the fire, a two-level system that lets you regulate the heat to a fairly infinite extent.

What you want are mutton kebabs — as many as you can afford — lozenges of rich meat interspersed with tiny cubes of lamb fat that turn crisp and lubricate the meat as it cooks, meat as pancaked with chile and cumin as a vaudevillian is with greasepaint, which you then slide off the skewers and dip in more chile and cumin, whose aroma will drape around you for the next several hours like a heavy stole.

In theory, Feng Mao is a grill-it-yourself establishment, just like the scores of Korean barbecues that line the streets of its neighborhood. In practice, the first few times you stop by you will scarcely be allowed to so much as touch a skewer; theyare made of steel and heat up to the point where a fraternity dude could probably brand half of the incoming pledge class, and when the restaurant gets busy, and the waitress skittles between tables, flipping kidneys, rotating chicken wings, fanning out skewers of lamb, she displays the dexterity of a plate spinner in a regional circus.

Do you want the chicken hearts? Probably: They crisp up to a pleasant tenderness that is actually less exotic than the overmarinated slips of chicken breast. Do you want a few skewers of the intestines? No: Even if you like grilled intestines, you won’t like these.

For a couple of bucks, you can even experience what must be the winciest dish in town: a sharp, glistening steel skewer stabbed through thin coins of meat sliced from a bull penis, which bubble and hiss when they encounter the heat of the fire, sizzling from proud quarters to wizened, chewy dimes. It doesn’t taste like much, this bull penis, pretty much just cartilage and char, but the spectacle is as emasculating as a Jonas Brothers CD.

Feng Mao: 3901 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown, (323) 935-1099. Open daily, 11 a.m. to mid. MC, V. Beer, soju and wine. Street parking. Dinner for two, food only, $24-$36. Recommended dish: mutton kebab.

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Feng Mao
miles

3901 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90019

323-935-1099