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Pork with plenty of Korean-style sizzle

Every meal's a party at Honey Pig. The vibe is upbeat as diners feast on tabletop barbecue.

April 26, 2006|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

IT'S 10 p.m. on a Monday, and Honey Pig in Koreatown is packed with people and buzzing with frenetic energy. At this stylish samgyeopsal jip -- or pork belly barbecue house -- partying groups cluster around rugged, dome-shaped iron grills the size of trampolines. Waiters armed with scissors hurry from grill to grill snipping meat into bite-size chunks; they rush to respond to the persistent rings of table buzzers as diners call for fresh rounds of drinks, extra garlic or bowls of scarlet, whole-leaf kimchee.

Only recently has Honey Pig's specialty, pork belly -- the fresh cut that also yields cured bacon -- become the darling of top mainstream chefs in L.A., but food-loving Koreans have long crowded into their favorite samgyeopsal jips. In recent months, bellies from flavorful "black pork" (also known as Berkshire pork) have become more widely available, so competition among pork barbecue houses in Koreatown is on the rise.

But Honey Pig's owners have infused the traditional samgyeopsal meal -- and their restaurant -- with a fresh, contemporary breath of fun.

The room, with its oak plank floors and slate-like tiled walls, is a hip evocation of the old-fashioned Seoul barbecue joints. Cylindrical black tables mimic the 50-gallon steel drums those places use to hold charcoal braziers and Honey Pig's battered grills with spindle handles replicate the lids of traditional iron rice-cooking pots.

The meal is nearly as ritualized as traditional sushi service. First to arrive at the table are bowls of lightly seasoned soybean sprouts and deep scarlet red tongbaechu kimchi made from whole nappa cabbage leaves. Dishes such as these usually sit on the sidelines but here they get heaped on the grill to roast. Their flavors concentrate while their juices lightly season the meats.

Meanwhile the parade of accompaniments -- julienned green onion, a few raw garlic cloves, several dipping condiments and little bowls of bean paste soup -- comes to the table along with stacks of lettuce leaves and ddok, floppy playing-card-size swatches of rice noodle. You eat all this bo sam style as you would Vietnamese wrapped grills, folding sizzling meat chunks and seasonings into the cool lettuce or rice sheets.

In addition to standard pork belly and Berkshire pork, the menu lists a dozen meat cuts including wild boar and an inch-thick prime New York steak that you grill at the table.

Honey Pig's preparations highlight rather than obscure the flavor of these quality meats. Apart from its sensational spicy ribs and marinated hot pork belly, the kitchen leaves most meats unseasoned or simply flavors them with a touch of salt, black pepper and sesame oil. But accompaniments personalize your meal.

For many, the chile-spiced rice toward the end of the meat-grilling session is the meal's highlight. It's flecked with fresh Korean watercress, wild sesame leaves and roasted nori. The waiter spreads it on the grill where it toasts and crisps on one side. If you love roasted garlic, call for an extra foil cup of cloves to caramelize on the grill.

Happily, the servers refrain from dumping all the meat on the grill at once, allowing you to pace the meal as you wish.

Honey Pig also serves a wonderful mushroom platter that can supplement or replace the grilled meat. The beautifully arranged assortment includes skinny enokis, clusters of pearl gray oysters, white buttons and the meaty, thick-stemmed sae song-yi mushrooms sliced carpaccio thin. After absorbing the juices from the grill, the flavor of these fungi is incomparable.

As if the barbecue wasn't enough, some parties top off their meal with an order of the house special: spring-radish kimchi noodle (yeolmu kimchi noodle, untranslated on the menu). The gorgeous coral-colored semifrozen kimchi broth holds a mound of skinny somen noodles. The icy, slushy broth melts on your tongue as you eat, making an exceptionally cooling finish to the char and spice of the meal.

As a change of pace, particularly at lunchtime, Honey Pig serves a lavish dumpling dish that is Korean comfort food at its best. The untranslated specialty (listed next to last on the menu's second page and served for two or more) is a huge caldron of delicate broth in which you cook a few fresh vegetables and several dozen beautifully formed meat and tofu dumplings flecked with a bit of kimchi.

There's list of interesting (albeit untranslated) drink options. Besides beer there's san soju. This version of the grain or sweet potato distillate, often termed Asian vodka (although it's much lower in alcohol), is flavored with green tea extract. Almost everyone seems to be adding ice and squeezes of fresh lemon juice. There are also the Korean herbal wines bek seju and san sa chun yak ju as well as Korean-style raspberry wine.

Honey Pig is perpetually mobbed most evenings, but it does take reservations. Be patient if the person on the line struggles with English, and you'll be rewarded with some of the best samgyeopsal in Koreatown.

**

Honey Pig

Location: 3400 W. 8th St., Koreatown, (213) 380-0256.

Price: Grilled meat dinners, $15 to $22; house special noodle (yeolmu kimchi noodle), $8; dumpling casserole, $13 a person.

Best dishes: Berkshire "black pork," pork ribs, prime beef steak, mushroom platter, dumpling casserole.

Details: Open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Free lot parking. All major cards. Beer, wine, soju.

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