For photographs of Dae Bok, view Anne Fishbein's slideshow here.
In the farthest reaches of Koreatown, on a side street in a part of town where Spanish-language signs outnumber Korean ones at least 20 or 30 to one, Dae Bok is about as intimidating as restaurants come, a fortress-strength fence surrounding a well-guarded parking lot, dark-windowed Mercedes sedans gliding through the gates as if into a presidential compound, men staggering out of the place dressed as impeccably as they would be after a boozy meeting of corporate directors. The probability of a non-Korean accidentally happening into Dae Bok may be less than that of the Clippers winning the NBA championship next spring.
In a Koreatown where restaurants tend to specialize in one dish, whether it be blood sausage, Jeon Ju bibimbap or bubbling goat stew, Dae Bok is the blowfish specialist, its sign emblazoned with a rather dignified example of the breed, its all-seafood menu dominated (at least in the untranslated part) by the fish that Japanese aesthetes and Homer Simpson call fugu.
Blowfish, of course, is one of the most poisonous vertebrates in the world, second perhaps only to the golden frog of South America. Its skin is infamously used to poison the tips of hunters’ darts, and in its most dangerous form it bears enough tetrodotoxin to kill at least a couple dozen men. A paralyzing blowfish extract is rumored to be the agent that Haitian mystics used to turn men into zombies, the walking dead. In Japan, it is said that people felled by blowfish poison are not prepared for burial for several days, until it can be determined that they are really dead.
You may have had elaborate fugu meals at upper-end Japanese restaurants here or in Japan: toasted fins steeped in sake; strips of skin arranged into an exquisite salad; and the flesh microtomed into transparent petals of sashimi arranged into intricate mosaics of mortality. There is almost a rite built around the eating of fugu in Japan, heightened by danger, flavored with death. (In reality, restaurant blowfish is probably safer than restaurant steak — the toxin is concentrated in the fish’s easily avoided liver and reproductive organs, and there hasn’t been a fatality in a restaurant since the ’60s.)
But whatever Japanese blowfish may be, Korean blowfish, famously prepared the city of Busan, is the opposite: abundant, hearty and fairly reasonably priced, more often cooked than raw, served as the centerpiece of an evening’s drinking rather than as a refined, somewhat boring plate of what might as well be a mild sort of flounder. If it weren’t tinted red, dosed with garlic and served with a few different kinds of kimchi, potato salad, dime-size fried pancakes and an irresistibly gummy salad of boiled blowfish skin and herbs, it wouldn’t after all be Korean.
So after you persuade the waitress that what you really want is blowfish instead of monkfish, after you have pronounced the words bok jiri a half-dozen times to the best of your ability, puffed out your cheeks, and pointed to the line drawing of the blowfish printed on the chopstick wrapper, you may actually be rewarded with the blowfish stew. Chunks of the tail are submerged beneath a flurry of trimmed bean sprouts and a handful of bitter Korean greens in a potful of soup, which is put onto a tabletop burner and set to boiling. Halfway through the cooking process, the waitress reappears with a couple of containers, one of which contains minced garlic, and the other brick-red Korean chile paste, which she will spoon into the stew until you cry uncle, and which quickly transform into a vicious red froth. (Bok jiri with the addition of the pepper paste is properly called bok maeuntang — it’s listed on the menu both ways — but practically speaking they’re the same thing.) You can also have blowfish here as a jjim, stir-fried with bean sprouts and a ladleful of sweet chile sauce — several family-style menu combinations include jjim as an appetizer and jiri as the main course.
It is a pleasant thing, to sit around a seething cauldron at Dae Bok, sipping Korean black-raspberry wine, spooning broth and vegetables into your bowl, fishing out meaty pieces of blowfish that slip right off the curious V-shaped skeleton like a chicken thigh off its bone. Cooked this way, blowfish is a meaty, slippery fish, not unlike monkfish in its way, but denser, a little more fibrous, in a frog’s-leg sort of way. (In Long Island, where fried blowfish tails used to be a common Friday treat in Italian communities, it was often called sea squab or chicken-of-the-sea.) When you’re almost finished with the pot of jiri, the waitress reappears to mix the dregs with rice, chopped vegetables and a little oil, and leaves it to fry into a crisp-bottomed porridge of joy. If you’ve worked it right, you’re full, a little drunk and you’ve survived another day.
Dae Bok, 2010 James M. Wood Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 386-6660. Open daily for lunch and dinner. MC, V. Beer, wine and soju. Guarded lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $30-$45. Recommended dishes: blowfish jiri; blowfish jjim.