An abundance of high-quality meat, a high concentration of ethnic Koreans, and the near-universal appeal of year-round communal grilling has led to Los Angeles’ Koreatown being not only the Korean barbecue capital of the United States, but arguably the world. This is the fourth entry of the Korean Barbecue Chronicles, where Eater looks into a focused, spartan Korean import that boldly offers only three meats on its menu.
Quick — think of a Korean barbecue menu and count the number of meat courses offered. You’re probably thinking of a number past a dozen, folding two fingers down at a time to account for marinated and unmarinated versions of cuts. With the exception of perhaps Kang Ho Dong Baek Jeong, ordering at a Korean barbecue usually entails negotiating a lengthy menu and deciding which selections will make the cut. At Dal Ma Ji, there is no such difficulty.
The newest Korean barbecue import (by way of Daegu, South Korea’s third largest city) is situated in the oddly slanted strip mall on the southeast corner of 8th and Western. The folks at Dal Ma Ji already know which cuts and meats you’ll be ordering — because there’s only three of them on the menu.
Space and Scene
Dal Ma Ji is a lot cozier than its competitors, with a handful of tables and booths spread out in mostly four-top and two-top arrangements. This is particularly fitting considering the restaurant’s portion sizes and the length of time to properly cook its dishes; at most, one grill will accommodate four and is probably optimal for two.
The meat selections are sparse at Dal Ma Ji, which is a refreshing change of pace from the bloated listings of carnivorous esoterica usually found at competing Korean barbecue establishments. What little Dal Ma Ji does do, however, it does incredibly well.
The first selection is a prime sirloin steak which, on eye-test, looks about 16 ounces and has a healthy amount of marble. Grilled in a massive shallow stone pan that’s brought to the table pre-heated to ensure optimal grilling temperature, the steak gets a fantastic sear (provided you usurp the servers and let it sizzle long enough), caramelizing in its own rendered fat until the outside is bronzed in all its beefy glory. The steak is then cut into little cubes and briefly left to finish, with the resultant morsels perfectly rendered for pairing with Dal Ma Ji’s excellent salads.
Dal Ma Ji’s house special is actually marinated pork rib which has been sliced and hachured into a thick sheet ready for some mesh grill love. It’s the only dish to take advantage of the fact that Dal Ma Ji uses Korean charcoal, or soot, at each of its grills. As surmised, the charcoal imparts a pleasant smokiness that’s perfect with the sweet marinade, with the porky flavor of the rib being relegated to almost an afterthought. The dish is a genuine analogue of Gangnam favorite Mapojip, a local establishment in Seoul’s upmarket district particularly known for its intensely marinated pork rib and charcoal grills.
What arrives with the final meat offering, unassumingly listed as "bulgogi," could not have been expected. The aforementioned stone pan returns, but this time is filled to the brim with meltingly tender cuts of marinated rib meat, steeped in a broth and topped with onions, julienned carrots, and uncooked cellophane noodles, or dangmyeon, which soften as the broth rolls to a boil.
This particular form of bulgogi, normally termed yetnal bulgogi (literally "long ago bulgogi") or yuksu bulgogi ("broth bulgogi"), is rather uncommon in the States. The resulting broth is a little salty, but the entire dish is intended to be eaten like Japanese sukiyaki over a bowl of hot rice. Dal Ma Ji’s rendition of yuksu bulgogi is excellent, comparable stateside only to the likes of the more lightly-seasoned dish at Hwang Hae Doh in Garden Grove, California.
The theme of simplicity at Dal Ma Ji persists with the sides. Banchan at Dal Ma Ji are few, but just about all of them are exemplary. Kimchi at Dal Ma JI is a fermentation master class, the amber colored cabbage thoroughly adulterated with funk and somehow still crisp to the bite. A better strongly fermented kimchi might not exist in the city.
The pride of Dal Ma Ji’s side offerings is the kyejang, or spicy marinated raw crab. The little sea buggers are slathered in a mixture of intensely peppery gochujang and flecked with sesame seeds and red pepper flakes. The sauce, which is comparable in consistency to a marinara, clings to the crab and steals the show.
Dal Ma Ji's noodle options ... are standout dishes
It bears noting that Dal Ma Ji’s noodle options, including both types of naengmyeon, are standout dishes in their own right. Dal Ma Ji’s offering incorporates dark noodles made from kudzu starch, or chik naengmyeon, a dish similar in execution to its buckwheat counterpart, only slightly chewer and a little less wont to pull apart. The bibim naengmyeon in particular imparts a lot of sweetness juxtaposed strangely with pepper flakes that are strongly reminiscent of cayenne.
Service at Dal Ma Ji is a tad on the slow side, and grilling the meats thoroughly takes a fair amount of time. It’s important to note that the bulgogi in particular takes some back-of-house prep work, so order that ahead and be prepared to wait. Otherwise, it’s the typical "get-the-attention-of-your-server-by-any-means-necessary" experience endemic of the Korean barbecue genre.
Dal Ma Ji is a rarity in the city, the kind of restaurant that knows what it wants to do and does it unbelievably well. The three-meat approach might be off-putting to those who crave choice, but Dal Ma Ji makes up for it with a thorough knowledge of what they’re offering.
Perhaps most importantly, the experience is built for a low-key affair of two to four diners; one grill can’t possibly accommodate the stomachs of a group of six. That’s a bit of a shame, because Dal Ma Ji’s meats and prepared naengmyeon are some of the best in town, meant to be shared with as many people as possible.
In a city where Korean barbecue feels like an arms race of meat options, Dal Ma Ji knows its strengths and plays to them marvelously — and it’s ultimately fans of great Korean food who stand to benefit.