View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Addicted to Quack at Sun Ha Jang, Koreatown's Pleasure Palace of Duck."
When friends talk about the restaurants they miss in Koreatown — the ones that never quite made the transition when the neighborhood changed from a sleepy expat community to the westernmost district of Seoul — the late-night barbecue joints on South Western are mentioned, of course, the places that filled up after the bars closed, and probably Sa Rit Gol, which for 20 years had the most carefully made banchan, small side dishes, in Los Angeles. Others are nostalgic for the big North Korean restaurant, always empty, that seemed to specialize in mushrooms, or the original goat-soup speakeasy down on Pico, or even the big VIP, where Guelaguetza is now, that probably was the first Koreatown buffet with a non-Korean following. I still find myself pining for the short-lived Han River, whose bossam and jokkbal were the most elegant in town.
Still, the restaurant I hear about the most, the one that followers of Korean food can't believe disappeared from the scene, is probably the late Il San Duck, which was the first, and for many years the only, Koreatown restaurant to specialize in duck — the sister of the first duck restaurant in Seoul.
At Il San Duck, you got the famous clay pot duck, stuffed with rice and ginseng, or a chile-red duck casserole, or duck noodle soup, until mid-2004 when it closed, Korean duck was no more and soju-fueled lamentations echoed through the streets.
But sometime last year, the old-line barbecue joint Sun Ha Jang began to supplement the usual Koreatown menu of short ribs and belly pork with duck — nothing fancy, just duck grilled at the table in the manner of bulgogi. And when I finally made it to the restaurant a few weeks ago, prompted by a tip from Westside Scoops proprietor Matt Kang, the vaporized duck fat was so thick in the air that you probably could have swum upstream, each table a forest of green soju bottles, each tabletop dominated by an inset cast-iron grill as big as a hubcap, set at an angle to let the grease drain from the sizzling meat, a pint or more of bubbling duck oil seething at one end of each pan.
You can get the short ribs and belly pork if you want, and there is always one table piled with loops of raw intestines, but duck is clearly the star.
When you are finally seated, brought the usual assortment of kimchi and marinated bean sprouts, and quenched with big bottles of Hite beer, a waitress sets the flame to high, and the huge slab of metal in front of you erupts with shimmering heat. If you have ordered sliced duck (you will definitely order the sliced duck), a plate comes out laden with rounds of unseasoned duck breast formed into a kind of roulade, the same size and shape as fast-food hamburger patties, and the waitress tosses them onto the hot metal with the ease of a blackjack dealer. The meat almost immediately begins to ooze and shrink, you flip them onto the other side to sear, and you snatch them off the grill before they condense into chewy nubs.
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The first time I came to Sun Ha Jang, I assumed that you were supposed to treat the duck as you would any other Korean barbecue, smearing it with yellow bean paste or chile and folding it into a leaf, or dipping it into salt as one might a bit of grilled pork belly. I was also wrong — apparently you are supposed to add a few slivers of marinated onion and strands of julienned pickled radish to the chopped, dressed lettuce on the table, garnishing with the duck, sprinkling on a few strands of sliced Korean leek, constructing a kind of duck salad where the main ingredient magically replenishes itself from the grill.
When the waitress straightens the pan and plugs the drain with a hank of cabbage kimchi, you know it is time for the "roast duck" — not roast duck at all, but a compilation of the raw parts of the fowl that don't happen to come from the breast. The roast duck takes time: It basically cooks by rendering into duck cracklings, crisp if you can bear to wait that long, which are almost painful to eat without the tart contrast of the salad, but kind of delicious with it. There is also the option of spicy duck, ruddy with chile paste, but the chiles tend to scorch before the duck is quite done, and the experience is less exciting than it sounds.
The duck is eaten. The fat roils. The waitress brings over a bowl of rice cooked with beans and upends it onto the griddle, sprinkling it with herbs and sesame seeds, tossing in the leftover kimchi from the table, stirring it until she is sure all of the duck fat is absorbed. If you had ordered spicy duck, you are out of luck — the rice will taste of burnt spice and it will never get quite crisp. If you haven't, the rice gets nicely crunchy on the bottom, and exudes, probably overexudes, the essence of duck.
SUN HA JANG: 4032 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown. (323) 634-9292. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. MC, V. Beer, wine and soju. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, about $28. Recommended dish: duck.