Every time I tell someone that I’m a Korean living in Koreatown, they ask me whether I’m been to so-and-so barbeque joint or such-and-such galbee jips.
I’ve never been to a single Korean barbeque restaurant in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Yes, that is the truth. Every time I respond that I’ve never been to any of Koreatown’s barbeque eateries, I meet surprised eyes that widen and then squint with a silent “Are you sure you’re Korean?”
I just never had any desire to for four reasons: 1) my mom can make bulgogi just as good (if not better, ha!); 2) Korean barbeque can lick up to $20 away from my tattered pocket; 3) I’m not a fan of barbeque and 4) Why the heck would I want to eat Korean barbeque when I know Korean cuisine is so much more interesting and delicate than grilled meats?
But a while ago, I did finally visit one barbeque joint. However, I don’t count it as a Korean barbeque house, because it’s really— technically, Chinese with Korean influences.
My friend Jingjing and I met up for dinner after our internship at Feng Mao, a small restaurant located on Olympic Boulevard, almost tipping off the western boundaries of Koreatown.
I’ve always noticed this place and wondered if it’s run by “Chosunjok” (조선족) people (Korean ethnicities living in China) because I read both Korean and Chinese characters on its sign, and I was right.
Feng Mao is run by a couple from the Jilin province, a northeastern region in China that has a huge “Chosunjok” population. My friend Joanna is from Harbin, which is very close to that province, so I remember her telling me about the mutton kebabs she grew up eating. According to her, she would stop by a mutton kebab stand every day after school and buy a round of raw lamb on skewers (for a ridiculously cheap price) and sit grilling the meat by herself on the street. What a cute image.
Feng Mao follows a similar concept, but in a more elegant seating. There’s a small rustic pit stuffed with charcoal dug into every elegant dining table. The customers select how many skewers they want, what kind of meat, and they get to grill the meats themselves.
It’s just a very simple pit, shaped and sized like a shoebox with slender iron frames for the skewered meats to rest.
The clientele is mostly Koreans, with a few Chinese. I tested both Mandarin and Korean to my server and he could speak both fluently. Yes! Chosunjok!
It’s a bit odd because we are clearly not eating traditional Korean food, yet the little touches in this place is just so nostalgically Korean. Like the iced water served in plastic bottles advertising soju:
Or the smorgasbord of Korean-style banchan (side dishes) served before our main course:
I could taste the difference between their banchan and typical Korean banchan though. It’s a little less bold, a little less spicy, a little less salty.
Oh and we also got the mandatory gaeranjjim (Korean steamed egg) bubbling and wobbling in a stone pot:
I love this dish! It always reminds me of my parents because they eat this often. Though, being modern Korean, we just take the lazy route and “steam” the egg in the microwave.
What makes Feng Mao special is not just that it serves Korean-Chinese cuisine. They are heavy on lamb, because of the huge Islamic influence in China. I’ve always found it curious that China, a somewhat anti-religion Communist country, is still home to a gigantic population of Muslim minorities.
The menu is really big and it can get a little intimidating.
There’s weird intestines like chicken hearts and kidneys and gizzards. But there’s also familiar items like sweet-and-sour pork and dumplings, but come on, you can get that at Chinatown Express. See that cute fluffy lamb on the top left of the menu? That’s what you want.
When I saw “bull’s penis” on the menu, my immaturity reared its gleeful head and I just absolutely had to order it, just for the sake of being able to cry out “Bull’s penis!!” in a public setting. What? It’s fun!
There are two processes to grilling these meats. First you have to stick it on the bottom tier, and let the meats grill close to the flaming charcoal. Damn it’s hot! Do not try to stick your finger in it to test the temperature (some idiots do try that, trust me…like me.).
The fire is set in a very high temperature, so the meats cook super fast. That’s when you need to quickly remove them from the heat and let them rest on the top tier of the grill. How do you know when it’s ready? Well I’m no expert which is why I let the meat sit until it was getting too charred. The server rushed forwards and helped us move the meat up.
Look at them. Steaming in their own puffs of smoke that they created, edges blackened like the charcoals in which they cooked. You can kind of see the lamb fat dripping off, which sets sparks of flames from the glowing charcoals. What a beautiful, appetizing sight!
The meat already comes seasoned, but for people who are used to bold flavors (like us Koreans), Feng Mao prepares a plate of ground chile and cumin for you to coat the meats.
The meat tastes surprisingly lean. The exterior has a rusty, smoky taste, while the interior is meaty and tender with just a right amount of richness.
I don’t like lamb much—the gaminess turns me off—but I did enjoy these skewers for its spicy seasoning and chewy tenderness.
Jingjing, however, enjoyed every bite and swallow.
“This tastes to me like childhood,” she said happily. She grew up in Shanghai, but she spent the early part of her life in Jilin, so she remembers these mutton kebabs as a happy taste of innocent memories.
The eggplant skewers were grilled the same way as the meats:
I definitely preferred the eggplant. No bloody-tasting gaminess from them. But the cooking spectacle was less cool because there was no grease that dripped off to cause the flames to dance.
“Yes, of course,” he replied. “What did you think they’ll look like? Tiny balls?” And then he went away chortling.
Uh…yes? So, it was a tiny bit disappointing.
The bull’s penis ended up not tasting like anything. After being grilled, it did finally curl up into balls of crispy, chewy tendon-like cartilage.
It was like munching on seasoned, smoky plastic char. Meh. Not so cool and weird anymore. But at least I can still tell people I ate bull’s penis.
It wasn’t until I returned home and was brushing my teeth that I realized I had confused bull’s penis with another organ. Silly me.
Question of the Day: What is the “weirdest” or “coolest” thing you’ve ever eaten?
Catch the other Koreatown series posts: