Sunday, November 3, 2013

Eating too much in Koreatown

Dan Sung Sa
We could hear the shouting from the drunk sitting outside Dan Sung Sa when we got out of the car. On a bright autumn Saturday, we found a meter outside this Korean pub known for its bar food like skewered chicken gizzards and kimchee pancakes.

Now, two o'clock in the afternoon, the bar was shuttered, and the drunk sat, a 40 ounce in a crumpled bag on the pavement beside him, yelling at passersby.

"Hey, mister! You're a writer, huh?" he shouted when he saw us crossing the lot. "I can tell by looking at you, you're a writer."

"You nailed it, brother," [The Man I Love] replied. "You got me."

We quickly skirted the corner and headed west on 6th Street, taking in a whiff from the garbage dumpster behind Dan Sung Sa as the street dipped gently down.

The Chapman Market building takes up the block on 6th between Alexandria and Kenmore. This Spanish revival building was built in 1929 by architects Morgan, Walls and Clements as America's first drive-through market. Two stately towers anchor the corners of the block, with an arcade of retail storefronts between. Behind, arched entryways lead into a sheltered inner courtyard, with parking for the bars and restaurants that open onto it.

Elaborate cast iron grillwork and over-the-top Churrigueresque rococco embellishments of another era hold their own with the flashy colorful graphics of hangul script and images that jar and flash everywhere you look in Koreatown.

It was built as a market, with produce, meat and baked goods sold to the affluent people who lived in nearby apartment buildings.The neighborhood was tony, with high-end hotels like the Ambassador nearby, and the popular Brown Derby restaurant.

Today it's in the heart of Koreatown. Still thriving, the Chapman Market is now home to karaoke bars and nightclubs, a hookah cafe, fashion and cosmetic boutiques, and one of Koreatown's most popular restaurants, Kang Hodong Baekjeong, a raucous, smoky outpost of a barbecue joint owned by a South Korean celebrity wrestler.

The entrance to Kang Hodong Baekjeong is flanked by two cardboard cutouts of its famous owner. Once inside, efficient black t-shirted waitstaff wearing wireless intercom buds in their ears whisk you to a table with a central gas-fueled brazier.

The grill lit
 Expertly flicking a lighter, the waitress lights the burner and fits a domed grill-top in the center.  Around the grill, a cast aluminum tray inset with channeled compartments holds chunks of chopped onion and peppers, and in one, yellow corn kernels sprinkled with grated white cheese. She brings a battered tin teapot and into one of the channels encircling the brazier, she pours a stream of beaten golden egg.

Pork belly on the grill
You can get other menu items besides barbecue, but we went for the pork combo, which included pork neck, pork belly, and marinated pork short ribs. While we waited, panchan, or small dishes of accompaniments typically served with Korean food were brought to the table, including kimchee, a strong fermented cabbage pickle, a bowl of scallion and mung bean sprouts doused in a fiery red chile sauce; fresh green lettuce leaves, and a bowl of soy with onion chunks and jalapeno slices, and a generous smear of wasabi on the side.

Although I've been to other Korean barbecue places, the panchan here included things I wasn't familiar with - a bowl of cloudy water with bits of cabbage and radish floating. A metal bowl with some fine white powder. A greenish rice pancake. A wedge of orange kabocha squash strewn with pumpkin seeds, nuts and raisins.

Squash with nuts and raisins
This last was beautiful, drizzled with sweet syrup. The pancake was also a little sweet, and mysterious because the waitress couldn't find the English word to tell us what was in it.

A battered cauldron of bubbling red broth came to the table; kimchee and tofu and chunks of meat sizzling and spitting a rich, sour broth stained with chile.

Thick chunks of pork went on the sizzling grill, and big slices of mushroom and eggplant. Periodically a waitress or waiter came by to flip the meat with tongs and scissor it into smaller chunks. The rendered fat dripped off the domed grill into the compartments where the cheese melted over the corn and the eggs slowly congealed in gentle curds.

As each chunk of meat cooked, we could tong it off the grill and wrap it in lettuce or dunk it in the sauce and eat with rice. The waitress poured a dollop of golden sesame oil into the dish of white powder - salt - and suggested we dunk the pork belly in that, too.

Pork short ribs
Pork short ribs were thin lean steaks, grilled on an open screen that allowed the fat to flare alarmingly into flames at times. It was served with a red pasty condiment that tasted sweet and like chile all at the same time. The bland corn and cheese, and the custardy scrambled eggs were comforting. The watery radish soothed chile-tingled tongues. All the combined tastes were rich and lent a variety to the meal.

There was so much food and it was so good that we ate more than we can usually manage. We had to sit back and pace ourselves. This isn't food for finicky people. The two-person combo can easily serve three people. Or - better yet - bring a crowd and try more variety!


Mingus said...

I like pooooork!

M. Bouffant said...

What an interesting neighborhood!

Nice shots of the Chapman Bldg. A tiny picture of it when it was a Ralphs in the upper left here.

smalltownme said...

You're always making me hungry.

Susan B said...

Oh, I SO want to try this!!

Gilly said...

Don't think I'd ever be brave enough to try such a different style of eating! But then I'm not likely to find such a restaurant in this part of the UK!!
I'm always fascinated by your foodie trips out. Please don't stop going and photographing all these interesting food combinations!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I love chicken gizzards, does Dan Sung Sa cook them crunchy, or tender? For the record, I like them both ways but I never cook them crunchy at home.