It helps to have friends who can read Korean newspapers; that’s how Scoops owner Tai Kim found out about Don Dae Gam; he in turn told me and Mattatouille, and we all convened for a pork-centric feast. Forget about a Dose of Vitamin P. We practically OD’d on pork, and I’d gladly do it again at L.A.’s new Mecca for pork lovers.
Park’s Barbeque owner Jenee Kim has already set the standard for refined Korean beef barbecue in the hyper-competitive swath of Los Angeles called Koreatown. Two months ago, she expanded her focus to pork at Don Dae Gam in south K-town.
Don means either “pork” or “money” in Korean. Dae Gam is loosely translated as a high-class person or government officer during an ancient Korean dynasty. Put it all together and you have a Dynastic Officer of Pork. That would be quite an honor.
The entrance is lined with fortuitous stalks of bamboo. The restaurant itself hosts plenty of stainless steel, including tables and the vac hoods, which do little to combat the billowing clouds of pork smoke. Don’t bother wearing Sunday’s finest to Don Dae Gam; it will just end up smelling like sizzling pig.
Each table hosts a built-in charcoal grill that burns hot. The removable stainless steel grate sits very close to the fire, so whatever you place on the steel cooks quickly.
We started with two different pancakes, including the orange-tinged Kimchi Pancake ($8) loaded with scallion stalks and supple sheets of pungent fermented cabbage. The pancakes featured an almost ideal texture, with almost creamy batter core and crisp edges.
The Korean Pancake ($8) with green onions and fragrant sesame leaf wasn’t quite as good as the kimchi pancake, but it was still an excellent representation of the style.
The dipping sauce for the pancakes includes chile paste, sesame seeds and scallions. Don’t let the flame-red color fool you; most Korean chile sauces aren’t very fierce.
Park’s dispenses nearly twice as many complimentary small plates – banchan – but Don Dae Gam made their seven selections count. The first wave featured a dish of crisp, mildly funky sheets of chile-soaked kimchi, crunchy cucumber discs flavored with garlic and chilies, cubes of acorn jelly, candied black beans, and a milder kimchi slathered with soybean paste and garnished with green chilies.
Later in the meal, we received dishes of supple mushroom stems bathed in chile sauce and a third style of kimchi featuring tangy Napa cabbage.
Special Pork Neck Meat ($18) involved velvety sheets of pink, well-marbled meat with very little fat that crisped up nicely on the grill. Don Dae Gam did provide a caddy of salt, fermented bean paste and punchy chile sauce, seeds and all, in case you wanted to dress your meat, but the neck already had more than enough inherent flavor.
Seasoned Pork Short Rib ($18) was treated to a judicious marinade where subtly sweet soy predominated. The chef scored the pork, which allowed the marinade to infuse the sheets. Our waitress used scissors to cut the rib meat into squares, allowing us to pluck easily with chopsticks. We ended up buying two additional orders of the short rib because it was so good, with just enough fat to assist caramelization.
Seasoned Pork Belly ($17) was really terrific, with meaty slabs of marinated bacon that were cut a half-inch thick. The layers of fat sizzled on the grill, leading to great caramelization. Don Dae Gam’s bacon was light-years ahead of Honey Pig, which packs plenty of flavor with their spicy chile marinade, but uses much fattier strips of belly meat.
The most adventurous cut of pork on the menu is undoubtedly Diaphragm ($18), but nobody shied away from the challenge. We figured the meat would be muscular since the organ is awfully active in helping the pig to breathe, and that turned out to be the case. The strips of burgundy meat were slightly chewier than the other cuts and a little gamier, but still totally satisfying when seared on the grill.
According to Tai and Mattatouille, traditional Korean meals don’t involve dessert. Instead, the meal ends with calming bowls of soup or stew. When you order bibimbap, the grains of rice closest to the hot stone pot form a crust. At Don Dae Gam, they scraped that toasted rice from the pot and dropped the chunks in boiling water, forming a soothing soup.
My stomach was calm from the soup, and I didn’t see the point of re-igniting the flame, but our waitress brought out a big communal pot of kimchi stew loaded with massive sheets of cabbage, jalapeños (seeds and all), rectangles of tofu and more pork. The timing seemed incongruous, but the stew tasted good, so nobody was going to complain.
Don Dae Gam may still be a newcomer, but considering the restaurant is dedicated to the most delicious animal on the planet, and that it delivered such massive pork flavor, Jenee Kim now has two restaurants in Koreatown’s upper echelon.