The neon and fluorescent lights of Pho Saigon, an anonymous pho-joint along Koreatown's 6th Street, were helping me to sober up. The broth was chock full of glutamic acid, the kind that comes sprinkled over like magic fairy dust (or simply as MSG), forcing one to down heaps of water and broth. Rice noodles, plump and weeded with limp Thai basil leaves, went down better than I thought. I stumbled out with my buddy Erik, a weathered chap who'd roamed Seoul for a few years after we parted ways post college. We looked next door and saw a massive line of people waiting for the Korean barbecue joint. A line? For all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue? Who does that? I bookmarked the place - don't ever come here. I hate waiting in lines for food, and I would never wait for what might be the most commodized meal in L.A. - the all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue, with its smorgasbord of pork and beef cuts ready at the whim.
Fast forward a few years, and upon the recommendation of my new(ish) friend Henry, I'm here at Hae Jang Chon, which is widely marketed in LA Weekly and other publications, a cute pig acting as its mascot, the menu tauting 19 selections of meat and a convenient closing time of 2AM. Ah, now I know why it's popular. The hipsters have found a new haven from the smokey, dark confines of 8th Street's Soot Bull Jeep. It's another restaurant with easier parking ($2 valet, textbook K-town), brighter lights, friendlier service, and one massive grilling stone on every table, the easier to share with your mates. The menu's got instructions on "how" to eat Korean barbecue. Everyone speaks English (this is a relief to me too, trust me). Heck, ESPN's even playing on the widescreen instead cheesy K-pop music videos or some horrible nameless soap opera. The music's still on a shrilly Top 40's mix, but it's comprehensible, with your garden variety David Guetta hit or the ninth Drake song you've heard that day.
The place demands that your entire party arrives before you're seated, but in the meantime they're quick to set your table. We sit down on a far banquette, looking down at every square inch of the table filled with banchan. HJC gives you four dipping sauces right off the bat, with smallish rice paper squares and paper-thin pickled daikon circles as mandatory "wrappers." The chopped green salad is glazed with sweet soy dressing (no surprise), and stone pots of steamed egg beaters arrive on cue.
With overall market price for meat on the rise, it's no surprise that the buy-in at Hae Jang Chon went up a dollar from their advertised price. Oo Kook, the premium barbecue emporium, also raised their lunch and dinner prices. Koreatown's rabid hunger for beef can't escape economic forces. We went through both marinaded and unmarinaded short rib. The weak heat on the pan meant a slow cooking time, and mealy meat. The meat exuded an extra amount of juices, which dripped into the metal pan below (as if they anticipate this). In between rounds, with the small amount of brown bits on the grillpan, the staff deglazes the pan with shredded daikon radish, a genius stroke if I ever saw one.
The real excitement comes when there's a slight lull between our serving of pork belly (gotta ask for the thick one, because who doesn't like it thick?), and the pan finally gets to a nice searing temperature. The sam gyup sal (pork belly) hit the pan and I proceed to turn it over Harold McGee style, back and forth instead of letting it stay on one side. This way you get an even sear and less juices flow out. After five minutes, we were drooling over the fat dripping off the formerly thick slabs, now a slight tan brown, almost getting to that chewy crunch. We even got a guy who's normally "kosher" to have a few pieces. Dip in sesame oil, lay in a piece of kimchi, wrap with rice paper, and you have one killer bite.
Hae Jang Chon
3821 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90020