“Those sea squirts are boss,” a man known among friends as Beef Erikson shouts as he chomps down on a bright-orange gummy creature, his eyes widening as the unique bitter flavor fills his mouth.
But no one is listening. The six other men at the table are too busy shoving every possible animal from the sea floor into their gullets. Most of the unsuspecting regular diners at Hwal Uh Kwang Jang in Koreatown glance over with curiosity — until eventually the loud, voracious table is the only one still seated inside the small strip-mall restaurant.
The sign out front reads “Live Fish,” which is exactly why they're here.
These men call themselves the Culineers. Most of them are transplants from Charlottesville, Virginia, who now work in the entertainment industry, and they all have one thing in common: restless palates and a desire to taste every flavor Los Angeles' culinary landscape has to offer.
To be a Culineer, even for one night, you must acquire a food-themed adventure nickname. Franklin Hardy calls himself Veal Parmstrong, Lane Kneedler becomes Beef Erikson, Duncan Birmingham goes by Marco Pollo Asada and Shane Kosakowski is Alexander the Steak. They are the steering committee to the group, which sets out on monthly culinary voyages such as this one.
They explain that the group was inspired by New York–based adventure eating club the Gastronauts, which has taken hundreds of people on eating expeditions in New York, L.A. and San Francisco. But after attending one meal with the group (which eats in packs of 30 to 60), the guys craved a smaller, more personal and laid-back experience. Unlike the Gastronauts, the Culineers remain a private venture where personal exploration is key.
Since the group began in 2012, the Culineers have tried everything from turtle soup to goose intestine, crickets to veal brains, traveling as far as Tijuana for barnacles at Misión 19 and documenting all of it on a Google spreadsheet, every step of the way. Though an official website is in the works, the group's explorations now are posted on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
“Will somebody soy me?” Genghis Flan asks from the other end of the now-packed table, pointing past an array of Hite beer and sake bottles at the soy sauce. A bowl of live octopus emerges from the kitchen as lobster shells, huge icy platters of cooked octopus and abalone and uni and oysters, and giant piles of sashimi get shoved around and consolidated to make room.
A few minutes earlier, the chef reached into a tank to show off the moving, gangly mollusk. It clung to his arms like Silly String as the table of Culineers cheered. Now on the table, it was chopped and plated but still wriggling. “Just use your hands.” Marco Pollo Asada encourages the others as the tiny tentacles squirm and slither, dodging eager chopsticks. Veal Parmstrong is the only one who succeeds at snagging a moving tentacle with his utensils. He smiles smugly at his victory. “I’m half Asian,” he says.
To the Culineers, one of the best things about eating live octopus is that the tentacles suction up the sauce, so when you bite down they release the intense flavor into your mouth. The tentacles also suction to your tongue, which encourages quick and aggressive chewing.
The men had set sail (in an Uber) for Hwal Uh Kwang Jang in search of live lobster (as in, lobster served while still alive), as promised by their sources. Franklin Hardy explains that the Culineers make use of “long-developed connections and inroads that grant us access to the hidden corners of L.A.’s various ethnic subcultures, which are usually unavailable to the general population. Which is to say, we use Yelp.”
Their source proved correct. The friendly waitress at Hwal Uh Kwang Jang was happy to report that the live lobsters and octopus had been flown in that morning from Korea. The lobster was pulled from the tank, waved about to display its vitality and then cut in half and served with the fresh tail meat beautifully placed on the back of the still-moving crustacean. Veal Parmstrong prodded the decapitated lobster's face with his chopsticks to keep the tentacles twitching as the group ate its fresh raw tail meat dipped in a Sriracha-like red sauce.
Though Veal Parmstrong practices saying “Gamsahabnida!” (Thank you) ad nauseam, none of the Culineers actually speaks Korean. So when a whole grilled fish is placed on the table, everyone begins pointing at the small, lifeless pisces and asking slowly, “Sardine? Is this a SAR-DEEN?” After a determined effort to learn exactly what they've been served, the Culineers find out it's a grilled saury fish (also known as a mackerel pike) and they love it.
When asked about food poisoning or if anything has ever been too unsettling to eat, the Culineers say that a positive attitude and a stomach of steel are prerequisites for Culineering. “As Culineers we never assume anything will be gross. We usually assume it will be delicious,” Veal Parmstrong says as he cheerfully stuffs the entire head of the grilled saury fish in his mouth.
There’s no question that imbibing is a major part of the Culineer experience. Warned of a possible five- to 10-minute wait for a table by the staff at Hwal Uh Kwang Jang, five of the Culineers disappeared into the night. Before you could say “Your table is ready,” they returned with brown bags of beer to guzzle in the parking lot and a bottle of Evan Williams bourbon that would remain in our pockets for the rest of the night as back-up booze.
Although Culineers originated as an excuse to go out drinking with the guys, the members' enthusiasm and knowledge of what they’re eating is anything but amateur. They share an insatiable desire to learn and experience new flavors, asking the staff to explain to them what they’re eating, where it’s from and how to properly ingest it. Based on these experiences, Marco Pollo Asada sold a scripted television show to a major cable network about the fast-paced world of the L.A. food scene; a Culineers-esque food club plays a pivotal role.
“To me, food is such a thing right now because, unlike movies or music or books, which you can download, food has to be experienced in person,” he says. “We spend so much time behind screens of some sort that eating a meal forces us to slow down and engage with each other. Food clubs and dining groups are having a moment because they feel like a throwback to Sunday family dinner.”
Their journey certainly doesn’t begin or end on the fork. After emptying the tanks at Hwal Uh Kwang Jang, it's on to a surreal pizza restaurant/bar/music venue in Koreatown, where an '80s cover band played with a sign made of cloth hanging behind them that read: “Neon Lights.” Then it's on to Beer Belly’s for more snacks and beer — and to Frank N Hanks for even more. This much booze means only one thing in the end: more food. And, in this case, blood soup.
Ruen Pair in Thai Town serves pork blood soup into the wee hours of the morning. Despite being decidedly hungry again, several of the Culineers looked disappointed when a clear broth soup is placed in front of them with cubes of brown, congealed blood floating atop. “I was hoping the soup would be bloodier,” Parmstrong says.