Monday, March 5, 2012
Jonathan Gold's Gift to Koreatown: Sun Ha Jang
Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold's last big project for the LA Weekly before moving (back) to the LA Times was a massive paean to my neighborhood. His 60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know is a tour de force of culinary completeness, showing the type of mastery of a single cuisine and ability to both highlight well known stars and seek out lesser known treasures that had been absent from many of Gold's recent compilations which seemed like so much warmed over retreads of earlier work.
As I gazed through the list though, one thing spoke to me: Duck Bulgogi. I rolled the phrase around in my brain thinking there was no finer combination of words in any language. Duck Bulgogi showed the promise of gamy meat grilling in its own fat, like a Korean confit with chili sauce. My usual policy is to hold off for at least two weeks before going to anything reviewed by Gold to avoid the "Gold rush" that occurs at an establishment subsequent to his reviews, but I couldn't resist the pull of Duck Bulgogi, and besides, with a full 60 reviews in one issue, the Gold rush effect would likely be muted.
Finding Sun Ha Jang, the site of the dish of my dreams, was a bit challenging. It lies in an Olympic Boulevard strip mall, just east of Crenshaw, but the only English is in very small print on the strip mall sign post. Luckily, I had my Korean speaking daughter with me, but while the English name doesn't appear on the actual restaurant, there are pictures of ducks on the windows, so just drive down the street and look for the ducks. Sure enough, the place was pretty much empty when I got there (though I had come early on a Sunday evening, just in case).
Duck bulgogi is a bit of a misnomer, at least based on my assumptions about bulgogi. The dish you want is listed as "roasted duck" on the menu, and it's unseasoned, more like a duck version of the roast gui you can get at Dong Il Jang and similar establishments than seasoned beef bulgogi.
As usual when tackling a new Korean BBQ dish, I let the waitress set us up. She used a wad of kimchi to plug the grease drain in the pan. "Not for eating," she told us. Then she lit the flame and put the duck slices on with a handful of garlic cloves. That's when the magic happens. The duck cooks down and releases massive amounts of fat which roast the garlic. Most of the panchan provided are actually for directly accompanying the duck as opposed to eating alone. There is a lettuce and onion salad, scallions with chili sauce and wonderful pickled onions (they need to get those into some cocktails pronto). You take a piece of duck, dab on some chili sauce, and then scoop up some combination of salad, scallions and pickled onions with your chop sticks, letting it all roll around on your tongue. The acid of the onions and the heat of the chili cut the pure fat of the duck and make for a balanced combination. On top of that, the little slivers of duck fat that fall off the leaner meat fry in their own grease until they become delightfully crispy little duck chicharrones.
As with roast gui, after the meat is gone, the waitress makes fried rice from the remaining fat, meat bits and panchan. As my wife often asks, is there anything that's not better fried in duck fat? Well, I'm not sure I know the answer, but fried rice is definitely better in duck fat, the rice soaking up the intense duck flavor, the grains blending with the little bits of fried fat. It's like grease with texture.
We ordered some regular beef bulgogi as well and it was very good (barbecued in the kitchen), but the thing to get hear is the roast duck and that's what every table was eating.
It's an amazing meal, though not for those who shy away from fat or worry about the state of their artery blockages. Thanks to Jonathan Gold, and good luck to him at the Times.
Sun Ha Jang
4032 W. Olympic Boulevard.
Los Angeles, CA 90006