If you've done much eating in Koreatown, particularly after the sun has set and the shochu is flowing, you've probably had some version of the scallion pancake called pajeon. It's a great dish for sopping up booze, adding in a much needed egg-starch-and-grease component to your evening. When you add seafood to the equation, chunks of octopus and other unknown oceanic bits join forces with big strips of scallion, egg and flour, then get crisped up and served with some sort of sodium-laden sauce. The result is your new best friend: haemul pajeon. For today's food fight, we put neighborhood favorite Chunju Han-il Kwan up against pork-intensive BBQ specialist Don Dae Gam.
Chunju Han-il Kwan is know for their wide array of panchan, and for budae jjigae, a post-Korean war creation involving U.S. Army rations of Spam and hotdogs, which are cooked with ingredients like rice cakes in a fiery red kimchee stew. But we came for the seafood pancake (okay, we had the budae jjigae too), and were more than pleased to see it arrive in front of us.
It is a hefty, wide creature, which helps to explain its lack of cohesive structural integrity. It has good crispiness around its edges, though when you try to pick it up with your chopsticks and dip it into that dark, salty sauce, there's a good chance you will create a trail of edible debris before it reaches your mouth. But there is deep comfort in the flavors here, a hearty rusticity that makes you wish you lived in some kind Korean grandmother's basement. You feel connected to food like this, and no matter how full you are, you will find it damn near impossible to leave any of it unfinished at the end of the night.
While Chunju Han-il Kwan is a small, wood-lined restaurant where you always seem to be squished around your table, Don Dae Gam is a much more open, clean and modern space. It is owned by the people who brought you the very high quality Korean BBQ-ing at Park's, so expect to see grills in front of you and a menu that pushes you in a particularly porky direction. In fact, you will even find a few nice hunks of stewed meat in their panchan.
Their seafood pancake is smaller and less expensive, much crispier and also easier to handle. There is a good bit less green onion in the mix, which is, we dare say, a disappointment. On this day, the middle of the pancake was also slightly undercooked. The chili-laden dipping sauce is pleasant enough, but as a whole, the flavor of this pancake cannot quite compete with the one at Chunju. Don Dae Gam makes a pleasant version of haemul pajeon, but Chunju's is something more — a soulful rendition, the sort that happens into your thoughts when you're falling asleep at night. Or maybe that's just us.
Chunju Han-il Kwan:3450 W. Sixth St. Koreatown, (213) 480-1799., Don Dae Gam: 1145 S. Western Ave., Koreatown, (323) 373-0700.