Today's obsession: sam-gyeopsal, fresh, Korean-style pork belly, cut into thick slabs, cooked on a hot griddle, sliced into serving portions with sharp scissors and folded into a bit of vegetation with bean sauce and a sliver of raw garlic.
You know you have found a samgyeop-sal joint when you see happy pigs dancing around the restaurant's logo, pigs that think they're just going in for a little free lipo. You know you have found a samgyeopsal joint when you see customers stagger out into the night, lips shining with grease, perhaps wishing that pork belly wasn't quite so well suited to the overconsumption of soju.
The dish has had a place in local dining for decades now, at places like L.A. Toad, Park's and the late Sa Rit Gol, but this is perhaps the pork belly moment in Korean cuisine, the point at which the meat threatens to take over the place in the culture currently occupied by noodle soup and barbecue. If you have driven around Koreatown lately, you have probably noticed a lot of happy pigs.
The difference between Korean pork belly culture and American bacon fixation is that a lot of Koreans tend to think of pork belly as health food — perhaps not health food in the way that bracken ferns are health food, but as a magic, protein-rich substance that clears the skin, protects the liver, detoxifies the lungs, even cleanses the system of cholesterol.
Samgyeopsal — the name means three-layer pork, referring to the striations of meat and fat — comes from pedigreed pigs, specially bred black pigs at the very least. It is rich in vitamin B. To read some of the literature, you'd think you were taking yourself to a spa, not knocking back half a pound of lard.
If you are contemplating a pork-belly cleanse, you could do worse than to give it a test drive at Palsaik Samgyeopsal, a new place behind Ma Dang Gook Soo in a maximalist Korean mini-mall. Palsaik is presumably a branch of Palsaek Sam-gyeopsal, a famous pork-belly restaurant in the Sinchon neighborhood of Seoul.
Palsaik is decorated with photos of pork, drawings of hogs and swooshy rainbow things that represent the “eight colorful flavors of pork,'” the healthful slabs of pig, marinated in life-sustaining tinctures, to which the restaurant's customers are devoted.
Indeed, whether at lunch or on a lazy Sunday evening, the people around the tabletop grills, sitting on stools that resemble cushioned barrels, seem remarkably healthy and fit, no different from the people you see at the local tofu dives.
Strips of meat sizzle and dance on slanted metal griddles. The fat trickles down through an iron slot into inset receptacles, barely pausing on its journey to moisten bean sprouts and grilling onions. When the meat caramelizes on one side, you flip it over with a pair of tongs; when it is done, you snip it up and wrap crisp scraps in a leaf of the Korean herb ggaenip, use them to garnish a salad or roll them up in scarlet rounds of marinated daikon. You are eating a lot of vegetables with your sam- gyeopsal. There are no panchan, small side dishes, but there is a bowl of lettuce soup enriched with clams, octopus and fresh crab, a soup that gets thicker and spicier as the meal progresses.
The Tokyo X pork belly Park's brings in sometimes is probably a better quality of meat. But what separates Palsaik from places like Honey Pig and L.A. Toad is the variety of marinades. The basic unit of consumption here features eight thick slices of belly, each folded into its own neat containers, which are in turn lined up on long platters in strict order of pungency. (If you reverse the direction of the platter, a waitress will be there within seconds to turn it back around.) The mildest is unmarinated, then ginseng, wine and garlic. The second round includes pork marinated in herbs, curry, miso and the chile paste gochujang.
Between rounds, you will scrub the grill with a chunk of radish impaled on a stick, an oddball act of housekeeping that is even more pleasurable than it seems.
It is hard to look at the menu, dense with health claims, without thinking about the junior high school word game where you are supposed to end every sentence with the phrase “… in bed.”
Obama is a masterful president … in bed. Like that.
So what you end up reading is: “Garlic lowers cholesterol and high blood pressure … on pork belly?'' or “Ginseng is great for metabolism … on pork belly?'' or “Wine lowers risk of heart disease … on pork belly?'' I am happy to hear that herbs — the marinade tastes like bottled Italian dressing — relieve depression and stress, and that curry may help to prevent Alzheimer's disease, but I remain less than convinced.
But still — even if the benefits of the flavonoids in the miso pork belly or the carotene in the gochujang pork belly are minimal, so what? You're eating spicy pork belly with raw garlic and fresh herbs. And sometimes, maybe most of the time, happiness is an end in itself.
PALSAIK SAMGYEOPSAL | 863 S. Western Ave., Koreatown | (213) 365-1750 | Open daily, noon-9 p.m. | MC, V | Beer, wine and soju | Lot parking | “Eight colorful flavors of pork'' combination, feeds 3-4, $39.95