I called a friend with a last-minute invitation to eat at Dae Jang Keum. We had a fine and leisurely evening not only having someone else cook for us but watching them do it right in front of us, at our table equipped with a barbecue grill in the center and an exhaust fan overhead.
Most of the other diners were Korean and seemed well attuned to the rituals of consecutively grilling vast quantities of meats with a whole lot of side dishes.
Not so for one delicate flower who'd posted on Facebook, "I've never been so horribly treated in all of my life!" (She's never had a foreman? A bad break-up?) My experience was quite the contrary: On both visits the waitstaff gave professional, courteous, and kind attention throughout. Someone was even dispatched to run after us into the parking lot to deliver the carry-out menu I'd asked for.
If you've come to Dae Jang Keum for barbecue, your best bet is the all-inclusive meals that comprise of six kinds of meat, at least eight side dishes, and some strong, cool cinnamon tea at the end (it will be all the dessert you can handle).
Your server (personal cook?) first lights charcoal at the bottom of the stainless steel grill and applies strips of "pork navel," turning them frequently and eventually cutting them into bite-sized pieces and sharing them out among the diners. His dexterity is part of the fun, and there's no smoke. Neither my online research nor my inquiries at Dae Jang Keum turned up useful information about pork navel. But one employee said it was the same as pork belly. It looks it.
The same procedure happens, one at a time, to short ribs, ribeye, barbecued pork, barbecued chicken, and pork belly. I bit my tongue not to protest as our guy trimmed some fat off the ribeye. It sounds like a lot of carne, and it is — you see it all heaped raw on a plate at the start. But the spacing makes it doable.
The tastes of the different cuts, except the ones that have been marinated in barbecue sauce, tend to come out fairly similar; I don't know what that says about those animals. The short ribs are a little sweet; the chicken goes well with soy sauce. It's not a transcendent flesh experience, just a satisfying one.
The small plates or banchan are fun, too. You get a bowl of steamed eggs, a mild, firm scramble. A soft potato salad tastes like Mom's. Kimchi, fish cakes, broccoli, bean sprouts, and some tiny soft eggplant are offered, as well as a big bowl of dressed lettuce and a head of untouched romaine.
If you don't want to go the barbecue route, the array of other choices is dizzying — from soups and stews (ox knee, kimchi, codfish, military stew, short ribs, dumplings, soybean paste) to noodles, fish, and eight kinds of bibimbap.
Ordering a la carte on our second visit, we still got banchan with our meal, plus miso soup, in addition to our appetizers. Fried dumplings with ground pork were like any good pasty. We loved the warm shrimp dumplings — what is it about that barely sweet, rubbery exterior that's so appealing?
We ordered grilled mackerel, two of them, which came with a choice of soups. The spicy soft tofu soup was... spicy and soft (normal tofu is soft enough for me). It was adorned with a mussel and some shrimp. The fish had salty, crackly, blistered skin and moist, chewy, squeaky flesh.
Dolsot bibimbap, cooked in a stone pot (the dolsot), is just a dollar more than regular bibimbap, and it is very, very hot. That's the idea — it creates crusty rice on the bottom and stays warm throughout the meal. Our server offered to mix mine for me — you don't pick at the ingredients one by one — incorporating the hot sauce made from fermented red pepper paste. The seafood version gives you generous amounts of shrimp, octopus, and tiny scallops, with that luscious rice and lots of onions. I'm not sure who would not like this dish.
Dae Jang Keum serves beer and wine (though not Korean beer) and is tucked into the corner of a strip mall just west of Dequindre. Koreans know it for being near H Mart, the big Korean grocery.