Inside Don Day, Koreatown. [Photos: Frank Lee]
In some sense, Korean barbecue isn't a fully Korean meal. The aspects of the tabletop grilled meat fest became immensely popular as a proletariat food item here in Los Angeles, especially Koreatown. Meat, and in particular beef, is very expensive in Korea, thanks to stringent trade deals with the U.S. and a collective delusion about the tainted quality of American beef in the motherland. Korea's disdain is America's gain, with ambitious Korean immigrants taking the concept and adapting it to American tastes.
Now, when one wanders around the myriad all-you-can-eat and high-end barbecues in Koreatown, there are as many, or even more non-Koreans sitting around and toasting soju than ethnic Koreans. That has led to a cottage industry, and even sub-culture of Korean BBQ acolytes who chase the newest AYCE spot or revere the specialty 'cues that boast USDA prime or even Kobe (well, Wagyu) beef. Here now, Eater chats with a Korean BBQ pitmaster, Frank Lee, who also contributes as a photographer. Lee talks about the tricks of the trade at Koreatown's Don Day, on how to optimize a meal, and how each cut of meat should be cooked on the grill. [Note: Don Day has closed and has been replaced by another Korean barbecue spot called Yerim that's also AYCE]
Lee looks for a thick grill rack because a lot of spots cheap out with thinner ones that don't spread the heat from the flame. Other places, like Star BBQ even have an open grate over the flameless grill, but it's actually harder to cook well on those grates. Lee doesn't recommend these because too much grease can fall through directly onto flames. The best grills are also well-seasoned, allowing for plenty of pounds of meat through the meal. It's best to let the grill heat up for a few minutes - if you can't keep the hand over the grill for three seconds, it's hot enough. Charcoal is also a new trend that sometimes adds a smokiness to meats, but Lee thinks that most places don't know how to use this in the right way. But some top spots like Kang Ho Dong Baek Jeong have more effective charcoal to flavor meats.
Korean food is always about banchan first. A hallmark of a great Korean restaurant is the quality of its banchan. These aren't merely appetizers. And they're not really "free" either - they're a part of a meal and should be enjoyed throughout, not just at the beginning. Most AYCE fans will tell you that banchan is nice, but not something to be consumed in high quantity. The game here is about eating as much meat as possible and getting bang for your buck. So, banchan, while important to the experience, isn't the main player here. A typical selection, however, will have kimchi (of course) which can be thrown onto the grill for extra flavor. As for Don Day, their banchan on this particular evening consisted of acorn jelly, thin strands of lighly pickled Korean turnip, macaroni salad (more on that later), broccoli topped with a gochujang sauce, and bean sprouts tossed with red chli flakes (called gochukaru).
Barbecue in Koreatown really took off with the advent of one crucial item: dduk bossam. The thinly sliced rice paper sheets might actually be Southeast Asian in origin. It's not a typical Korean dish at all. The late Shik Do Rak on the corner of Hoover and Olympic supposedly introduced dduk bossam as a barbecue side, sitting alongside the more typical fresh lettuce leaves and pickled daikon slivers the size of a silver dollar pancake.
Dduk bossam proliferated to other barbecue joints (and eventually back over to Korea!), including Manna, located nearby Arlington and Olympic, which really became the hub of AYCE in the early 2000s. Here, college students, budget diners, and more gathered to sit around in a tent-like structure, grilling up endless platters of thinly sliced Korean meats. It was here that Frank Lee first experienced all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue, a format that's been reproduced countless times not only in Los Angeles, but across the meat-loving U.S.
Lee, who immigrated to the U.S. in his pre-teens, never experienced barbecue like this in Seoul. As a child, meat was always something to be desired in large quantities, but high cost prohibited this pursuit. The mere notion of all-you-can-eat meat is one that might drive a food-loving Korean stark raving mad. So Lee, who loved this format, became a regular at Manna, and then at other AYCE spots that sprouted up by the mid 2000s. He developed techniques to optimize the experience, with all the available ingredients.
When you walk into a Korean barbecue spot, first make sure the meat is fresh versus frozen. Even if it's previously frozen, the meat should at least be thawed out when presented at the table. The general idea when ordering is to proceed from non-marinaded meat to marinaded meat. Lee likes to start with beef tongue, a thinly sliced, flavorful cut that has a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Tongue meat isn't just superior to brisket, also called chadelbaegi, it's also more expensive. Again, something to mentally process when trying to stretch that dollar. When cooking these thinner meats, Lee prefers to cook them medium to medium rare, making them still juicy and chewy because they toughen up quickly.
Still, Lee orders a plate of brisket for the platter since it's a good starter (and nice to compare with the tongue). In addition, he asks for dae-chang, a white tubular large intestine of the cow. It's a pretty gruesome piece, but it requires at least half an hour around the rim of the grill to cook right. When completed, it'll get slightly seared on the outside and taste very much like perfectly cooked squid.
THE SAUCES, ETC
Here's a good time to segue into the sauces. First off, there's a highly American component here, as barbecue in Korea is typically only presented with sesame oil, and perhaps some san-jang, or miso-gochujang mixture. A major component now is the soy sauce and pickled jalapeno dip that's really great for un-marinaded meats (jalapenos don't grow in Korea). Throw in the special dae-chang (large beef intestine) sauce, which is a thicker, sweet soy dip with grated ginger mixed in that complements the jerky-like pieces perfectly. Those fresh garlic and jalapeno slivers, which appeal to the notably Hispanic crowd that enjoys Korean BBQ, make great companions in wraps, or right on the grill.
THE MEATS, PART TWO
After the first order, it's good to pick up on some larger pieces, notably the jumuluk or lightly marinaded short rib, and pork belly, also called ssam gyup sal. The pork belly is easily the second more popular meat around town, with myriad techniques to cook this. Lee tends to take a slower approach, allowing the fat to render slightly out before cranking up the heat to sear the outside. Some people prefer this meat well done, but that leads to a chewer bite.
At Don Day, they provide very lightly dry-cured belly, much like Italian pancetta, which cooks much better on the grill. Other spots even marinate the belly with herbs and oil. At Don Day, they take it up a notch by adopting fad: multiple flavors for pork belly. On this occasion, we enjoyed the garlic pork belly, utterly caked in freshly minced garlic, and the gochujang variety, which seared nicely to an umami-rich ruddy brown.
To end the meal, Lee ordered up the signature pork ribs, as well as a whole piece of pork unmarinaded pork shoulder. A meal like this runs less than $19 per person before tax and tip, and the affair can last for hours when fueled with the right drinks.
Beer is a solid selection that's probably more popular in America, but the stomach-filling quality of suds makes soju the pro choice at Korean bbq. Refreshing, clean, and just the right palate cleanser, soju is the ideal pick for the AYCE Korean barbecue fan. Plus, the higher alcohol level makes the meal a bit more enjoyable as Korean beer such as Hite, OB, or Cass tend to hover around the low 4%'s for ABV.
ODDS AND ENDS
— A pro at Don Day politely asks for everything from the servers at once, rather than harping the busy runners with things piece meal. Take account of all the banchan that needs to be restored (they get free refills too), all the drinks that need replenishing, and any additional meats for the table, taking care not to over order on the meat side.
— Ask for slivers of garlic and jalapeno, as well as extra salad since that makes a great counterpoint to the rich, salty meat. Some places will even give you an aluminum foil cup filled with garlic and sesame oil to throw on the grill. Nothing like garlic confit to throw into a bite of grilled meat.
— Frank Lee has probably gone to Korean barbecue over a hundred times in his life, and at his most frequent pace, was eating it at least once a week. People have offered to pay for his meals just to have him come around and cook for the table.
— A great Korean barbecue has sharp scissors. Cut meat as it starts to brown so that it cooks more evenly and quickly.
— You won't find macaroni or potato salad in Korea. This is a side dish that Korean-Americans picked up and now serve everywhere in Koreatown, and across Koreatowns in the U.S. It's one easy-to-make banchan that non-Koreans can get behind. Or maybe it's just an odd gateway banchan for Non-Koreans. Either way, it's a patently American addition the Korean barbecue canon.
— A well-run place doesn't need to keep providing grill racks as they brown. A quality spot has thick, even grills that can accommodate up to five or six diners.
— Don't ever ask Frank Lee if he's eating because he most certainly is when you're not watching. Just let him put all the meat onto a "cooked plate" as it comes off the grill. Oh, and be sure to ask the server for the extra plate for said meat.
— An ideal end to the meal? The salty daen-jang chigae, or fermented soybean soup, or perhaps a refreshing mini-bowl of naeng-myun or cold buckwheat noodle soup. And if there's still stomach space? Hit the Korean shaved ice spot next door or around Koreatown to cool off even more.
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