Youre a Pig!
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "You're a Pig!" photo gallery.
Have you ever had too much pork belly — not a slab of bacon or a braised Chinese version that you are expected to share with a table of 10, but so much of the stuff, sliced thinly and arranged in pinky white curls, that you can barely see over the top? Because at Don Dae Gam, the pork-intensive Koreatown barbecue just north of the original El Cholo, the pork belly just never seems to stop, wisps spilling off serving tables and soaring above big plates. There is so much pork belly that the hardwood charcoal smoking in the center of the tabletop seems barely adequate to the task, and the procession of belly blowing across the hot stainless-steel grill can begin to remind you of the conveyor-belt scene in I Love Lucy after a few minutes — you gobble the sizzling excess just to make room for the next barrage of meat.
Until you finish your pork belly, dredging the slivers in seasoned salt or gobbling them with a bit of scallion salad, eating them with kimchi or constructing elaborate cholesterol fortresses, the waiters, who are busier at this DIY restaurant than the host at a Labor Day barbecue, will not even think of bringing out the pork ribeye or the pork neck, the crunchy, surprisingly funk-free marinated intestines or the pork diaphragm, which sounds intense and organy but is just the pig equivalent of skirt steak. If you lack the belly for the belly, the waiters seem to say, you should have stayed home with some soup.
This restaurant, of course, is the new, pork-intensive sister to Park Dae Gam, better known as Park’s BBQ, the ultramodern palace of high-end meats that changed the game in Koreatown. Park’s was the restaurant that managed to put the fragrance of hardwood charcoal into the meat and not into your hair, established superprime wagyu beef as its standard grade, and introduced the pork known as Tokyo X, a lean, dense pig from a special hybrid breed whose bellies have the springy presence of fresh pasta. Park’s, a branch of a Seoul restaurant known for its clientele of pop stars and movie directors, is the most expensive barbecue place in Koreatown by a not insignificant amount, but it is still almost impossible to get into on a balmy Saturday night. (Ironically, Park’s success may have been indirectly responsible for the surge of cheap all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue joints in the last couple of years — with the top and middle established, the bottom was the only niche left to fill.)
Don Dae Gam is a sleek, shiny place, decked out with round grill-top tables and low stools, but its ambiance is less Seoul high-tech than post-Ikea chic, and the menu is weighted toward multimeat combination barbecue dinners, beer and vast servings of kimchi chigae included, meant to be shared by three or four, inexpensive enough to feed hungry college students even without the incentive of $5 bottles of soju. At Don Dae Gam, you are not getting wagyu beef or pricey Tokyo X pork, and the procession of panchan, tiny first courses, is fresh but far less elaborate than that of the mothership: cabbage kimchi, sugared black beans, simmered squash, etc. You can get a crunchy seafood pancake to start, but then it’s all about the pig and the grill: the monsoon of belly or more delicate, fat-ribboned slices of pork neck; thick hanks of boneless rib meat slashed nearly through so that the smoke seasons the deep interior of the meat; even a token slab of beef brisket, which, under the circumstances, is probably meant as honorary pork.
One of the best dishes in the house is a huge tureen of pork belly, rice noodles and baby octopus set to simmering after you are finished with the meat, a roiling red mass, not half as spicy as it looks, which bubbles and seethes and slicks the tiny cephalopods with pork fat, garlic and chile, as it reduces into a thick, shiny stew. A waitress dumps rice into the leftovers, stirs a bit, and comes back a few minutes later to scoop out crunchy-bottomed bowls of octopus fried rice.
Have you become a pig? You bet. The restaurant’s logo, a fat pig’s ass scrawled on every available surface, waggles its curly tail at you in silent, porcine brotherhood.
Don Dae Gam: 1145 S. Western Ave., Koreatown, (323) 373-0700. Open for lunch and dinner, Mon.-Sat. Beer, wine and soju. Valet parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, including beer or soju, $40-$50. Recommended dishes: combination dinners, barbecued pork intestines, pork belly and baby-octopus casserole.
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