In a way, I’d like to go with him. I’m not much of a meat eater. And I don’t like smelling like my food or smoke or anything other than the scent from my unscented body products that still seem to smell of something even though they aren’t supposed to smell of anything at all.
But I’m in the company of friends – and the company of Sam Kim, who is somewhat of a restaurant consultant to the LA dining community on Twitter. He knows good food like I know good… well, health food.
He insisted that I’d like it. He said it in a way that indicated that Don Dae Gam is slightly more upscale than other Korean barbecue restaurants in the area. His careful choice of words made it clear that the sister restaurant to the widely-revered Park’s BBQ would be a good place for me to flirt with the cuisine that I am still woefully unfamiliar with.
I know Sam hasn’t led me astray when I pass under the poor neon pig sign and enter the nicely groomed space. The powerful ventilation system has drained the restaurant of excess smoke, leaving only a subtle fragrance of grilled meat and charcoal that is not entirely unpleasant. I drink it in, inhaling the scent of seared flesh with the sincere hope that it will awaken some sort of carnivoric lust inside of me.
Yet when I’m seated at the linear table that’s already been accessorized with side dishes and complimentary banchan, I realize that I am more excited about the contents of those bowls and plates than I am about the neat strips of beef rib, pork belly and pork neck that are awaiting their fate on the hot steel grill.
“What are these?” I gush to Sam as I lean over the table to snag a bundle of fried rice that’s been wrapped in a thin fried egg wrapper.
I don’t wait for him to answer – I plop the conveniently packaged seasoned rice into my mouth before it has time to fall from my precariously-held chopsticks. I’m similarly enthused by the other savories on the table – a delicately dressed green salad, the various kimchis positioned in a semi-circle around the grill, a slurpy egg custard, a crisp kimchi pancake, and one of my favorite dishes of the evening, the sizzling pork ddeokboki. I dig through the kimchi, tender pork pieces and glossy chili sauce for the discretely-sized rice cake pucks underneath. As usual, when presented with a platter of meat, I am still quick to make friends with the carbohydrates first.
The beef bulgogi (thinly sliced prime rib) bathed in a fatty broth that contains slippery strands of japchae fights back for my attention. It’s luxuriously rich – verging on over-the-top – but I’m nevertheless drawn to it. It’s horrible, artery-clogging stuff, but seems somehow more intoxicating because of its sinister properties.
When we begin grilling the raw proteins, I make a concerted effort to act just as excited as my companions about the jerky-like pork neck and varying cuts of pork belly.
“This is my favorite,” someone says, lifting up a shriveled slice of pork belly, their voice caked with reverence.
I nod ambiguously and tentatively pick up a piece of the pork neck with unsteady chopsticks. The grill has imparted a smoky mark on the meats – claiming each piece as its own. “This is man-food at its best,” I think, then turn my gaze longingly toward the now empty plate of fried rice bundles.
Even with the ventilation, the well-maintained grills and spotless marble tables, Korean barbecue still has not captured my heart by the end of our revelrous evening. It’s a path I’ll be willing to tread again, however – as long as I have the right carbohydrates and right people by my side as guides.
Don Dae Gam
1145 South Western Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90006-2314