After I wrote this post about how much I miss Korean street carts/tents (called “pojang macha or 포장마차,” Los Angeles-based reader Connie commented that L.A. does indeed have a close pojang-macha-esque improvisation. It’s called Dan Sung Sa, and it happens to be just a few blocks away from where I live in Koreatown.
I’d sorta heard of this place and had it bookmarked on Yelp for a long time. Now that Connie mentioned it, visiting Dan Sung Sa shot high up on my list of priorities.
The pojang machas I visited as a kid in Korea were limited to alcohol-free snack carts. My parents wouldn’t let me visit the “real” pojang machas— orange tents that stir with drunken activity in the evenings as mostly middle-aged, working-class men pile in to complain about work and the wife over bottles of soju.
Pojang machas, literally “tent wagons” and sometimes called “Pocha” for short, have been a staple of Korean landscape and culture since its liberation from Japan after the Japanese Occupation. It mostly catered to working class men who sauntered in for a drink and some snack after a full day of office toil. Since then, even corporate people and young couples started visiting pojang machas, lured by its stark decor and minimalistic menu.
I have yet to visit a “real” pojang macha, but I’ve seen them countless times in Korean dramas. I swear, every Korean drama will feature at least one scene in a pojang macha: You’ll see couples having deep discussions as they chew on chicken feet and down soju. You’ll see a recently dumped girl nursing several bottles of soju and then stagger off singing until a guy who is secretly in love with her come to carry her back home. You’ll see the ahjuhsees (“middle-aged men” in Korean) smoking and doing soju shots. Who knows if these drama scenes actually occur in real-life, but that’s kind of the stereotyped image of Korea’s pojang machas.
You see, pojang machas are such an icon of the Korean culture of drinking: Got a promotion? Let’s drink! Got fired? Let’s drink! Your birthday? Let’s drink! Your mother’s cousin’s son’s birthday? Let’s drink! Bored? Let’s drink! Happy? Let’s drink! I’ve had a lot of fellow Koreans complain to me about that kind of drinking culture, but what can you do to change a centuries-old tradition?
So. This post is way overdue, because I actually visited Dan Sung Sa about three months ago, back when I was still interning for a start-up company (I quit after a few months) and when I was still in my junior year in college.
After a long day of work at my internship, two of my co-workers and I decided to have dinner together. We bonded over a common interest in different cultures and complaining about work, and even though we all quit, we still remain in touch. Here are my wonderful new friends, Armin and Jingjing:
I’ve introduced Jingjing before. She’s a beautiful Shanghai maiden, a recent USC graduate and now works for a Japanese marketing firm. Armin is a Persian-German with a fascinating mind, a warm and hearty personality and a somewhat crude humor. We are ridiculously different from one another, but for some reason…we get along very well.
Both of them are interested in food and trying new things, so I suggested Dan Sung Sa to them. It wasn’t until later that I discovered Armin is a complete spice-baby—which meant a lot of spicy Korean food got ruled out. But I gotta hand it to him; he was still open to trying it so long as he had a gallon of water next to him.
Dan Sung Sa is not at all a real pojang macha, but a dive bar set up as a pojang macha imitation to quell Korean Americans’ nostalgia.
For one, it’s an indoor establishment— no tents, and it actually has a working bathroom. The seats are clean and hygienic and smoking is not allowed. And I don’t know why, but there are portraits of famous American movie stars on the walls:
Perhaps to stir up nostalgia for the 50s and 60s? Those were perhaps the prime decades of pojang machas.
However, Dan Sung Sa did a good job recreating the shady, lively, old-school atmosphere of pojang machas.
But look! An Ahjuhsee! Sitting alone! Just like the dramas! WOW!
I love the way they set up the place. Smack in the middle of the room is the bar, but it’s built around a mini kitchen of sorts, where an ahjumma (middle-aged lady in Korean) boils rice cake, grills skewered meat and serves soju.
Even the menu is printed on a wooden plank:
The wall is papered with newspaper prints and menu items scribbled on paper and then tacked onto the walls.
More vandalizing on the walls, too. I refuse to read them out for you.
Okay, before I go on, I need to give a fair warning: the pictures in this post SUCK. Suckity, suck suck! Dan Sung Sa, in trying to keep that pojang macha feel, kept the room really dim. I could barely see my companions’ faces, let alone the food. So I had to make do with that poor lighting condition.
Right. Going on. The assumption here is that you’re here to drink—specifically, soju, which is pretty much Korea’s national drink. Food is secondary here; it’s meant to accompany your drink. So all the tables are already armed with beer and soju glasses:
They look like preparation for shot bombs. I’m sure many groups here engage in soju bombs.
I don’t like soju all that much. Soju is quite tasteless; it’s like vodka—you either combine it with something or binge on it to get drunk. I don’t ever drink for the sake of drinking. For me drinking is just an occasional social activity or a novel experience. So we didn’t order soju…instead, we ordered yogurt soju:
Because this stuff is actually mad delicious!! And yes, ma’am, it’s a combination of yogurt and soju.
Even if you don’t like the taste of alcohol, you’ll like this. It doesn’t taste like alcohol much, just a milky, sweet beverage that happens to fizz up your belly and make you very, very happy.
Be careful though—because yogurt soju doesn’t taste like alcohol, it’s way too easy to over-consume it. Before you know it, you’re bawling The Beatles’ “Yesterday” with no shame. Not that it happened to me.
With our order of soju came some munchies. We had a little cute aluminum cauldron of soybean sprout and radish soup:
I loved this!! Unfortunately it had a few sprinkles of chili flakes in there so poor Armin almost choked after a spoonful. It looks bland, but yeah…it is pretty spicy. So I had the fun task of finishing off that pot by myself.
Dan Sung Sa also served us complimentary fried sweet potato fries:
Different from your average American sweet potato fries, right? These are shaved super thin and it’s crunchy and crispy and incredibly starchy because it’s made with Korean sweet potatoes rather than the American orange yams. Armin and Jingjing loved this.
Honestly, neither of us were here to drink. We were here to experience pojang macha. And also, we were all hungry so it was time to order some real food.
We started out with oijinguh bokkeum (오징어볶음), or stir-fried spicy squid:
Armin tried a bite and then followed up with several glasses of water. Oh well, at least he tried it. I finished the rest off, once again. Anyway, I discovered that Dan Sung Sa isn’t just a drinking establishment—there’s some fine cooks working here! The squid wasn’t tough at all, just nice and bouncy and chewy, coated liberally with a spicy-sweet sauce.
We also ordered a dish that is very nostaglic to me: gyeranmaree (계란말이), or rolled egg omelet:
This is super easy to make at home, and it’s also very, very good and comforting. What you do is whisk eggs with some vegetables like green onions, carrots, cook it on a skillet and roll it up like sushi. Maybe I’ll provide a recipe one day, though you hardly need it.
It came stir-fried with whole CHUNKS of deep-fried garlic. I fell in love with the garlic! It was all crispy like fried home-style potatoes on the outside, but inside your teeth sinks into this warm mash of pure garlicky cream. Oh Em Gee. Also, the chicken gizzards were served with a refreshing salad of onions and scallions to rid you of that nasty offal odor.
The last dish was Armin’s favorite:
Fried mackerel, with a simple spritz of lemon. What more do you need for fish fried heavenly in its own flavorful oil? We picked and nipped at it until the skeleton was licked clean.
So there you have it. My first full experience at a pojang macha. Well, the closest to a pojang macha that I can get here in America, anyway. Thanks for the recommendation, Connie!
Hungry for more wonderful cultural gastronomic spots in Koreatown? Check out the rest of my Koreatown series:
Question of the Day: What do you like to eat with your drink?