Beyond Bulgogi: Korean Pig Is What’s Worth Eating

Leave the beef to barbecue neophytes.

Koreans believe that if you dream of a pig, you'll get rich in the morning," Dan Gray of the blog Seoul Eats recently told me. Unfortunately, this isn't specific enough to help me interpret my dream journal. Must it be a live pig, or is roast pork sufficiently auspicious? Will grilled pork belly do, or can it be braised pig knuckle? If so, my lottery winnings must be in the mail.Most of the best-known Korean dishes in America contain beef: bulgogi, kalbi (short ribs), japchae, bibimbap, even many kinds of kimbap (Korean sushi) and soondubu (soft-tofu stews). But anyone who thinks kalbi is the ne plus ultra of Korean cuisine should sit down for a meal of samgyeopsal, or uncured pork belly.Samgyeopsal actually means "three-layer meat," referring to the striations of pink and white in its quarter-inch-thick slices. It's a Playskool painted-wood version of bacon, dauntingly solid in its raw state. Gray, who has lived and dined in Seoul for the past five years, says heavily marbled pork is so prized there that lean pork loin, for which we in the U.S. pay premium prices, is much cheaper than fattier cuts like the belly. And in Korea, pigs are still bred to pack on the pounds—just as they were in Western countries when lard was the primary cooking fat.While beef still has an aura of prestige in Korea, samgyeopsal is loaded with sentiment, says Gray. If a TV drama wants to depict a touching family reunion, the director will gather the family members around a plume of pork smoke. Down in Federal Way, Western Garden, located in a strip mall wedged between I-5 and Highway 99, prepares samgyeopsal much like you'd find in a corner joint in Seoul.Here, an order of samgyeopsal ($13.95) is the focal point of a two-hour meal, a pound of meat surrounded by more than a dozen sides and sauces, the fuel to soak up endless rounds of soju. Western Garden is the Korean equivalent of a red-checkeredcloth pasta place, comfortably broken in. At the tables in the center of the room, which are not equipped with gas grills, couples spoon up doses of hot beef-rib stew or dip into bowls of bibimbap. At the tables along the walls, young women pour shots of distilled rice wine for their fathers while their mothers flip and resort the pieces of meat. (To get access to the grill, you have to order either another meat in addition to the samgyeopsal, or a combination platter.) Every few minutes the waitresses emerge from the kitchen with a stone bowl of something boiling so fiercely that all of us involuntarily lean away from the aisle as they pass.While the squares of pork belly were sizzling on the legal-paper-sized grill, my tablemate and I distracted ourselves with the panchan, or side dishes: first a sharply pickled green bean, then an oval of summer squash dressed in sesame oil, then a piece of kimchi, until we made our way around the table. After 20 minutes, the pork squares had shrunk to half their initial size, the meat had become burnished and crisped around the edges, and the surfaces had bloomed with microscopic bubbles. I'd then pick up a piece of curly-edged green lettuce and cradle it between my thumb and index finger, swab a piece of samgyeopsal across a tiny plate of sesame oil and coarse salt, and gently lay it on the leaf. Add a little rice, a dab of ssamjang—fermented soybean paste mixed with a bit of sweet chile paste—a few tendrils of julienned scallion salad, perhaps a piece of cabbage kimchi. Then I'd wrap it up into a neat little packet: a Bollywood movie of a bite, a family epic with jokes, tears, five or six songs, and a thousand-extra dance spectacle.Kaya Asian BBQ and Grill, a very new, very stylish restaurant in Shoreline, doesn't just upscale Korean barbecue, it also upgrades samgyeopsal by introducing a Los Angeles specialty called dduk bo ssam. "Bo ssam" is a traditional way of eating steamed pork wrapped in lettuce or sesame leaves. (Most American foodistas know it as the signature dish of David Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar in Manhattan.) About a decade ago, says Allisa Park (editor of the 2007 book Discovering Korean Cuisine), a restaurant in L.A.'s Koreatown called Shik Do Rak started offering "dduk bo ssam"—samgyeopsal wrapped with a lettuce-scallion salad in rice-noodle squares called dduk. This year, the trend is taking hold in Seattle's North and South Korea(towns). Honey Pig in Lakewood now offers a long list of barbecue combos with dduk, and Insadong in Lynnwood just introduced the wraps.The buzz around Kaya centers on the fact that the restaurant brought its chef up from Southern California, which in Korean circles is the equivalent of Canlis hiring Jason Franey away from Manhattan's Eleven Madison Park. Kaya's combination dinners, while pricier than Western Garden's, are still reasonable—$60 for a three-person combo that could probably stuff four. The all-inclusive combo starts with samgyeopsal from much-prized (fattier) black pigs, marinated ribeye and brisket, kalbi, an onion, and a few mushrooms for the grill. The waiters served us a rice-thickened pumpkin puree after we sat down, then ringed the grill with ceramic white rectangles of panchan—kimchi and spinach lightly tossed with sesame oil, of course, as well as raw crab legs slathered in sweet-spicy gochujang (crack with your teeth and slurp!) and, on one occasion, a scoop of creamy potato salad. To round out the meal, the restaurant throws in a bowl of spicy soybean-paste stew, an egg custard that foams up as it quickly cooks in a heated stone bowl, and a bottle of beer or soju."The noodles add a smooth texture," explained our waiter as he set down the dduk. Most of the noodle wraps I've eaten in L.A. and Oakland were like oversized chow fun, three-inch squares of a substantial rice noodle. Kaya's dduk were far finer, translucent and gossamer, and as I bit into the wraps I'd made (containing char-edged samgyeopsal, garlic, salad, and ssamjang), my tongue would slip over the surface of the noodle, a cool melisma before the crackle of the pork belly and the grainy gush of the soybean paste. Though Kaya's pork belly was plentiful and exquisite in quality (as was the beef, by the way), there were only six dduk for the entire table. We asked for more and were denied. Ridiculous, really; we spent the rest of the meal quickly ferrying bites of meat, salad, panchan, and sauce into our mouths, trying to replicate the wrap without the wrapper.The flight-path whoosh of the shiny chromed tabletop fans notwithstanding, Kaya's gorgeous: dark wood booths, mica-flecked black marble countertops, and poured-concrete floors, with rustic wooden masks the only ornamentation on the beige walls. There's a bit of country to this city cousin, but it's the equivalent of a hunting-plaid shirt vacuum-sealed to a hipster's chest. The server-to-diner ratio is double that of most restaurants; dressed all in black, little microphones curled around one ear, they haul ass around the booths, and I heard not one but two traffic accidents in the doorway to the kitchen.The third pork dish I ate last week was jokbal, braised pig shanks and trotters (no toes) served with ssamjang and a dip made with quarter-inch-long salted shrimp. Lynnwood's Sam Oh Jung, whose stews I've written about before ("Only a Fool Skips a Winter Hot Pot," Jan. 21), is one of the rare restaurants in the Puget Sound area to offer jokbal. It's very different from the version I ate this spring with Gray at Pyeongando in Seoul, a workingman's spot with a 30-minute wait out the door, a fleet of old women fishing the trotters out of steaming vats, and, on the table, battered aluminum trays of hot, roughly hacked trotters, the skin chewy, the fat translucent and plentiful.At Sam Oh Jung, the jokbal ($17.99) receives a refined treatment: The cooks braise a much leaner shank until most of the fat is rendered away. Then they remove the bones, roll up the shank to press the meat together, and chill it. Parsed into even 3-millimeter slices and fanned across the platter, the meat seemed firm when I picked it up with my chopsticks, but in the mouth the gelatin and collagen turned satiny and a wonderful, deep meatiness emerged, set off by a burst of salt from the shrimp sauce (the shrimp itself barely registered). This jokbal was almost like German headcheese, cold cuts for a four-star smorgasbord. In fact, I sent my tablemate home with the remaining pork, and she and her husband made jokbal sandwiches for lunch the next day, followed by a jokbal snack in the afternoon. Even if her credit-card balance won't see any improvement, 24 hours of braised pig trotter must guarantee some kind of porcine dreams.jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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