View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, “Korean Barbecue at Choonchun Dakgalbi.”
If the cattle-car conditions and edgy vibe caused you to flee last year's big Korean barbecue cook-off, you may have been pleased by the relative mellowness of this year's festival: a groovy, amiable afternoon atop a huge parking structure, with plenty of shade, a big beer tent and a laid-back crowd that seemed to include practically everybody who has ever visited Koreatown — a crowd that looked like L.A. The DJs played way more hip-hop than K-pop, to the relief of most people older than 15. A soju cocktail competition was won by Joel Black, the ex-bartender of Comme Ça, Doheny and Caña, and commemorative T-shirts read “Meat Me.”
It was the lines for the barbecue samples from Koreatown restaurants that were perhaps the most surprising: Orderly, sure, but distributed in a way that was a bit unexpected. There were long waits for the pork ribs at Hamji Park, which makes sense; but also for the bouncy patties from the new Kalbi Burger truck; for the famous short ribs at Park's BBQ, which won the overall competition for the day, but also for Byul Gobchang's grilled beef intestines: chewy, delicious cylinders that packed astonishing amounts of garlic. (As often as I've braved the line at Kogi, I've never contemplated the idea of 100 people waiting in the hot sun for a plate of grilled intestines.) There was great spicy pork at Olympic Restaurant's stall, unusual green–tea–marinated short ribs at the Hansong stand, and decent, if overmarinated, short ribs from the 24-hour tofu joint BCD. It was a wonderful afternoon.
Still, the food I was most surprised by was the dakgalbi from the newish restaurant Choonchun. It's a spicy, saucy dish I had somehow imagined to be extinct in L.A.: a vivid red mass of chicken, cabbage, slivered sweet potatoes, the thumb-thick rice noodles called dduk and an incongruous layer of melted mozzarella. Dakgalbi, I knew, was a specialty of Chuncheon, a small city about two hours north of Seoul; a dakgalbi fad had burned through South Korea a few years back, powering restaurant chains and multiplying around college campuses. Like Chinese hot pot or Japanese okonomiyaki, dakgalbi is a great, cheap communal food, almost always prepared to order in vast pans set on tabletop burners, and when it comes time to squirt chile sauce onto the bubbling mass of food, an element of the dare lurks in the background — the dish can be fearsomely hot. I had also thought that dakgalbi had largely been supplanted by buldak, an incendiary chicken concoction, very much in the spirit of Buffalo wings, which makes dakgalbi seem as bland as the Colonel's original recipe. I'd once been to Mapo, a dakgalbi café down on Olympic, although I hadn't heard anybody talk about the stuff for years.
So the next afternoon found me at Choonchun, an oddly shaped restaurant in a mini-mall on the corner of Vermont and Sixth. The long dining room is much bigger than it appears from the parking lot, throbbing with disco lights, the smell of charring chile paste and the obligatory soundless flat-screen TV. Is there soju? Lots of it, kept so cold that the alcohol turns to slush inside the bottle. The menu is untranslated, which means that you have to more or less guess at your dinner. The awning outside is printed with the words Chicken Kalbi instead of the name. The business card is in elaborate Hangul script, and you'll find the restaurant in the phone book as Chuncheon, which is the modern transliteration of the name of the city. It's not quite set up for a crossover crowd: A waiter asked if I was aware the restaurant served Korean food.
But there isn't much mystery in ordering — Choonchun basically serves a single dish, dakgalbi, and your only job is to decide how many orders of the stuff you might like, basically one for each person in your party, although you can probably get away with half of that. (There is also “fusion'' dakgalbi, which replaces the sweet potato with bubbling cheese, and the spicy gochujang, with a sweet soy-based sauce, but you might as well go with the original.)
A steel pan is brought over; a flame is lit; what looks like five pounds of cabbage and sweet potato begin to steam. Panchan, a half-dozen side courses, arrive: garlicky potatoes, macaroni salad, a pink kimchi pancake, rounds of grilled blood sausage, thinly sliced pickled daikon, some kimchi. The pan starts to bubble, and for the first time you can see the scarlet layer of chicken under the vegetables. A waiter comes over to flip the mass. You wonder if the dduk is ready to eat. He flicks your chopsticks away from the noodles with his trowel. Chile sauce is applied in a wash you recognize from a late Jules Olitski painting. It is tossed. The cabbage melts down to nothing. The sauce caramelizes. You may eat.
It is more meat than salad, more sweet than hot, more chewy than crisp. The sweet potatoes cook down to fragrant air. When you are finished, or almost so, the waiter restarts the fire, squirts some oil in the pan, fries an egg in it, then mixes in your leftovers with rice and a handful of minced Korean herbs and lets it sit until the bottom develops a crunchy crust. This is widely considered to be the best part.
Afterward there will be a swirl of frozen yogurt squirted from a Pinkberry-like machine. It will be all you can do to take a single bite.
CHOONCHUN DAKGALBI: 703 S. Vermont Ave., L.A. (213) 388-0285. Open Mon.-Fri., 2-10:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 1-11 p.m. AE, MC, V. Beer, wine and soju. Valet parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $25-$30. Recommended dishes: dakgalbi, “fusion'' dakgalbi, soondae.