If on a Winter’s Afternoon
February 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
The sign may have changed at Gamja Gol, but the song remains the same. Since opening in the mid-1990s, the restaurant has specialized in a soulful, rustic elegy to pork neckbone soup, gamjatang. Just around the corner from Seoul Park, the restaurant has proudly raised the banner for gamjatang (or gamjajungol, as I believe it’s known when served from a larger pot as a shared dining experience) for a couple generations of Koreatown diners. In one of the most competitive restaurant neighborhoods in the city, Gamja Gol has championed a staunchly traditional dish through fried-chicken infatuations, sausage fads, and the popularity of AYCE barbecue joints. While the place once attracted an older clientele, today’s crowd features Korean grandfathers attired in out-of-fashion-but-still-natty suits as well as table full of college students, all in search of nourishment at a gut level.
Most of the tables at Gamja Gol sport large, communal bowls of the signature gamjajungol, a dish that Linda Burum speculates may date back to cheap meals cooked for Korean railroad workers in an earlier, pre-high-speed Internet era. Though the large sign hanging on a wall notes that single-serving sizes are available, most the clientele seem to opt for larger sizes, the smaller of which at $24.95 can easily feed two or three souls. After ordering, the waitress brings out the bowl, filled with the spiny and angular pieces of neckbone that sink into the bubbling cauldron of soup like a fossil emerging out of the La Brea Tar Pits. The soup is topped by perilla leaves, crushed perilla seeds, green onions, and a pair of whole potatoes that soak up the meaty soup juices while the dish cooks at your table. (The dish gets its name from the Korean word for potato, gamja, and the new sign features a jovial, cartoonish spud beside the restaurant’s name.)
Once the gamjajungol reaches boiling, diners are free to start plucking the serrated bones from the soup and awkwardly ferret out healthy morsels of meat and tendon held between small nubs of bone. Sometime this is a matter of a deft touch with chopsticks; other times, the only relief to be had is to noisily slurp at the neckbones, head craned to get a better angle at the tender prizes wedged in small, bony crevices. Of course, this is hardly the dish for fussy eaters or those looking for simplicity. A loin, fillet, or chunks of pork belly would doubtless provide much easier work, but the close-to-the-bone pleasures of neckbone meat provide tantalizing inducements to savor rich, umami heaven.
On a near-frigid winter’s afternoon, with rarely seen Artic gusts slicing their way through awkwardly bundled pedestrians, Gamja Gol provided the deep, soul-pleasing tastes that only long, slow cooking can offer. Like certain types of American Southern cuisine, gamjatang elevates a lowly cut of meat into a sublime and hearty meal. The spicy soup is more than just an afterthought. After savoring the life-giving broth and meal, diners may be treated to one final act. Waitresses will heat up the soup, boiling off some of the stock before frying cooked rice in the remnants. There are other dishes on offer—pancakes, bebimbap, and even naengmyun for sweatier summer months—but stick with your gut instincts.