Did you know pigs have jowls? And that you can eat them? Well, they do, and you can. The Italians cure them into a bacon-like product called guanciale, which is sliced little-by-little and used with pasta. In OC, I last encountered pig’s-cheek meat on a dish of Berkshire pork at Stonehill Tavern.
But it was at Hebaragi, a new Korean barbecue in Tustin, that I finally met pork jowl in its raw, primal state. The rarely seen ingredient that some gourmands laud as better than bacon starts out resembling it. In strips half-frosty white, half-pink, you see the familiar composition of fat and meat, but there endeth the similarities.
You notice the minute you slap it on the griddle that pork jowls diverge onto a more indulgent path. It takes longer to cook than Hebaragi’s pork belly (more on that later) since each piece is long and thick, as if the jowls came from a porcine Richard Nixon. And the end product is denser, chewier than bologna and more unctuous than bacon will ever be. Even after it browns, it never fully surrenders all of its lipid reserves. As such, it’s nearly impossible to overcook because it self-bastes for what seems like an eternity.
Hebaragi’s method of cutting the jowls also contributes to the minutes you will spend thumb twiddling. The staff slice them in wedges, with the fatty part at the thickest end, the meat tapering off to a sharpened point. To speed up the process of cooking on the griddle in front of you, they come around to snip it into bite-sized pieces with shears halfway through cooking. Then, when it’s finally ready, you pick it up; blow on it; and bathe it in chili paste, sesame oil, soy sauce or ssamjang before tucking it inside lettuce or a perilla leaf.
If you dare, sink your teeth directly into a still-sizzling piece. The fat will gush out like you’ve bitten into a juicy grape. You shiver at the naughty thrill it brings. But across space and time, your hospital-bed-ridden future self will curse you for that night you ate a whole plate by yourself.
There’s more at Hebaragi that’ll make you say, “Screw it!” to longevity. The pork belly, called samgyupsal, is brought out on a wooden pedestal. Then, there’s the cooking surface itself: a griddle that is nothing more than a rectangular pan with a spout where the fat drains out. But if this exit path gets blocked by the warming kimchi, the grease will quickly pool up and the pork belly will shallow fry in its own fat. It’s practically confit.
With everything you cook, there will be a bit of splatter. The samgyupsal’s blast radius is the biggest, but even the vapors from the chadol—lean, paper-thin curls of beef brisket—turn into moisturizer for your skin, its smells your perfume. I’ve witnessed people donning full-body plastic aprons as if they were front row at a Gallagher performance.
It’s best to keep your distance from the griddle regardless. Fueled by small butane cans that have to be replaced every time a new guest arrives, the stoves will burn up anything that gets too close—like, say, portions of a paper placemat. Some serving plates have edges that are permanently charred or halfway melted.
And while the young restaurant is already one of the better Korean barbecues in OC right now, it also feels the most slapdash. The shack-like space previously occupied by no fewer than three failed casual-eating Korean restaurants was never meant to accommodate a DIY barbecue. The only tables equipped for cooking are on a patio sheltered by aluminum siding and surrounded by a short brick wall that lets in the breeze from Newport Boulevard.
Still, they managed to fit in all the standard Korean restaurant amenities, like the call button. A tableside wooden box holds the all-metal chopsticks as well as spoons. You will use the latter to scoop up gaeran jim, freshly steamed egg custard, which comes with each barbecue order. The rest of their panchan side dishes are modest—two or three at the most. If you’re lucky, one will be the impeccable raisin-flecked potato salad.
But it’s the meats that count. Though you have to order a minimum of two, the prices are very reasonable, with nothing costing more than $13. Most expensive is the galbi, precut into bite-sized strips that render down to coat themselves with a caramelized glaze because of the sugar in the marinade. The rib-eye is well-marbled and comes with a pat of butter to lube up the griddle before you sear it to tenderness. Conversely, the chewy beef stomach squeaks under your teeth no matter how much you attempt to scorch it.
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To wash it all down, there’s Hite, soju and bokbunja—a potent, fruity raspberry wine that is best paired with marinated, grilled meats (it says so right on the bottle).
Should you come with a non-meat-eater, you can send them to the venerable Sushi Wasabi, which is within steps of Hebaragi’s door. You can meet up at the shared parking lot afterward—they having spent a small fortune on raw fish and you reeking of rendered pork jowl.
Hebaragi Korean BBQ, 14430 Newport Ave., Tustin, (714) 734-5922. Meats, $8.50-$12.50. Two-order minimum. Beer, soju and bokbunja. Call for hours.
This review appeared in print as "Barbecue With Cheek: From pig jowls to beef stomach to plain old steak, pretty much any animal part tastes amazing after a few minutes on the blazing-hot griddles at Hebaragi."