The first steaming, crimson spoonful at one of Koreatown’s newest restaurants, Pusan Jobang Nak Gop Sae, might contain some octopus, or a shrimp, or a bite-sized morsel of small intestine. The scent of it will activate the salivary glands. Not in that trite cartoonish way, but as a visceral olfactory warning, portending a heat level generally reserved for Howlin’ Rays chicken or Southern Thai food.
Each bite is gustatory hellfire, reducing the sensation of taste into mere feeling of textures. Chewiness of octopus, snap of shrimp, softness of beef intestine. Pain.
There will be existential questions: “Why am I doing this to myself?” and “What is happening to me?” And then, if one is lucky, they’ll realize they’ve been eating it incorrectly the entire time.
Dinner is “some assembly required” at Pusan Jobang Nak Gop Sae, tucked into the corner of that mini mall off 8th and Oxford in Koreatown. The restaurant’s been open since the last week of April, but lines on a recent Tuesday night still go out the door. Koreans of all ages and English proficiencies settle into the restaurant’s two dozen or so seats, green bottles of soju as prevalent as banchan at every table. Also at every table is a portable induction range, most of them topped with steel pots housing the restaurant’s signature dish: nak gop sae.
Nak gop sae is a jeongol, or spicy casserole, that’s so named as a portmanteau for its three protein components: nakji (octopus), gopchang (beef small intestines) and saewoo (shrimp). The dish is prepared back of house and then cooked tableside on induction ranges. Servers come around and mix the cooked product into something resembling a crimson bouillabaisse, after which it’s ready to eat. Be advised that a medium size is large enough that it’s supposed to be shared between two or three, though the exact number might actually depend on spice tolerance.
This is because the way the dish is supposed to be eaten by ladling a tolerable amount of the casserole into a steel bowl of rice, then topped with marinated buchu (garlic chive), sprinkled with gim (roasted, salted nori), and then hit with some sesame oil and mixed together. This dish, in contrast to the harrowing experience described at the beginning of this article, makes a bit more sense.
Rice is an integral component of the experience. The separated grains lend well to mixing, while the clarity of the taste helps to unlock that subtle sweetness of the gochujang (spicy red pepper paste). The gochujang is further augmented by a whisper of brininess imparted by the shrimp and octopus, and even the density of that offal funk in the gopchang seems to mellow out and play nice with the rest of the proceedings.
Nak gop sae has been a popular dish in its home city in Busan (romanized interchangeably with a P, as they did here). A popular Busan restaurant called Gaemijip, replete with Instagram-friendly neon signs that translate roughly to “I think all day about… no, not you. Nak gop sae” prepares a particularly beloved rendition of this dish in trendy little digs in the southern Korean city.
By contrast, there’s very little presentation or flourish at Koreatown’s Pusan Jobang Nak Gop Sae. It’s a spartan, white room serving up no-frills food by Koreans, for Koreans, though of course everyone is welcome to delve into the spicy meal. Once the dining experience itself is negotiated, it offers a glimpse into Korean comfort food outside the confines of tabletop barbecues and soft tofu soups.
Just don’t expect someone to explain how to eat it.
Pusan Jobang Nak Gop Sae
3516 W. 8th st. #A, Los Angeles, CA 90005
Open daily from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.