Homer: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Lisa, honey, are you saying you're never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad, those all come from the same animal!
Homer: HEH HEH! Yeah right Lisa, some wonderful, magical animal!
So without further ado, here are some of this writer's favorite dishes made from the wondrous, magical creature that is the pig. Write-ins of your favorite are, as always, welcome.
10. House Special Pork with Sauteed Kimchi at Koba Tofu Grill
This is drinking food at its best. Fatty pork is pressure cooked to tenderness, sliced into magazine-thick, bite-sized squares and kept warm on a hot plate as a mountain of tart and spicy diced kimchi refreshes the in-between bites like pickles. Bossam is what the dish is typically called, but pork is pork is pork. Pitchers of Hite beer are not actually required to enjoy this wheel of hog, but it helps. There's something about how a cold sip of lager cleanses your palate of the pig fat so that you're ready for the next helping, a thing that the sauteed kimchi also does. Both help in mitigating what you're actually eating: bacon. Sure, it's unsmoked, uncured and barely rendered pork belly, but it's bacon. Thick, quivering, sweet, porky and rich, heated by a sizzling cast iron platter so that the fat doesn't congeal at room temperature but in your veins.
9. Half Order Carnitas Nachos at Albertos
Ask for the carnitas nachos. And ask for the half order. It isn't as sopping wet as the chicken, not chewy like the carne asada, and occasionally you get those crisp-edged parts that's sizzled too long on the griddle. It is, by far, the best species of nachos at Alberto's. And what you get inside the Styrofoam container will take the shape of said container–meat, cheese in one melting solid mass, suffused with bits of onion, tomato, avocado and sour cream. This is a meal best eaten late at night when no one's judging, or when everyone's too drunk to care.
8. Banh Mi at Banh Mi Cho Cu
There may no porkier banh mi than the dac biet (house special) at Banh Mi Cho Cu. There may be pickled carrot and jalapeno, but what you taste is predominately the bread and the meat. You chew the gelatin jiggle of the pork fat from the slice of roast pig. You perk up at the salty funk of liver pâté. And you relish the smoothness of the white Vietnamese ham called cha lua. These are layers of pork-on-pork action, hugged by the pillow of what could be one of the best baguettes in Little Saigon–a bread with the lightness of helium, a crusty crumb that shed itself all over my shirt, and a refinement that plays against the rustic, uncensored personality of the cold cuts.
7. Bacon at Rick's Atomic Cafe
Bacon is bacon. There's really not much you can do to bacon to improve the thing that everyone who consumes pork is the best thing to eat from the animal. There are some people who might say that even bad bacon is still better than no bacon. But I would argue Rick's Atomic Cafe, makes the best bacon–bacon that makes the egg breakfast. It's as straight as rulers–rendered slowly in an oven so that it cooks perfectly and evenly. You can spank naughty children with this bacon. It's crispy from end-to-end. The uniform consistency is almost unnatural, as if Rick somehow managed to arrange the bacon molecules to conform subatomically.
6. Nam Sod at Sutha Thai Kitchen
Just look at it and you know someone who cared made this dish. The cook, working in a kitchen no larger most broom closets, has taken the time to chop the pork to tiny bits with a cleaver, instead of just taking the easy way out with ground pork. The rougher, coarser consistency lends itself better to the lime juice and the bracing ginger slivers used as flavoring. It will be the first time you'll use the word “refreshing” to describe something made of almost entirely pork.
5. Spicy Coffee-Rubbed Spare Ribs at Rebel Bite
Rebel Bite's picnic-table surroundings turn out to be perfect for tucking into the coffee-rubbed ribs, an anomaly among the rest of Rebel Bite's pseudo-Italian menu, but one you should order because of it. Bits of garlic and other vaguely Asian flavors festoon the near-black, thick, caked-on, syrupy basting sauce, making the pork taste more Korean or Thai and less southern. Yet you'll still gnaw on the bones as you would at a Memphis dive. Offsetting its richness is a thimble of sweet pickled onions minced so finely you'll mistake it for coleslaw and a mess of fries you'll use to wipe off any of that leftover sauce.
4. Polenta Board With Pork Ragu at Cucina Enoteca
The server, almost fumbling with too many things to hold, was bright and chatty. She gripped a miniature pot in each hand. One contained a patiently stirred polenta, the other a ragu of pork. She cradled a wooden paddle, which she eventually placed on the table. She poured the polenta onto the paddle, smearing it to an oblong shape before digging out a well in the middle to receive the meat. When she finished, she invited us to dig in with our spoons. She knew this “polenta board” was a treat, something new to most customers. It's one of Cucina Enoteca signature's dishes and one of its most rustic. The cornmeal mush–creamy and faintly sweet, but bland if you eat it without the shredded-meat gravy–is kind of a revelation, an idea so rudimentarily perfect in what it communicates it makes you wish every Italian restaurant did it.
3. Carnitas Sandwich at Rider's Club
The second-best sandwich at Riders Club is grand and epic on its own scale, with fistfuls of roasted pork fallen into shreds both crispy and moist; it's so good it's worthy of a lonchera. And because of the fresh jalapeños, cilantro and shredded carrots, it also proves the Mexican torta and the Vietnamese bánh mì can sire an offspring with all of its flavors living harmoniously under a bun.
2. Tonkotsu Ramen at Ramen Yamadaya
Ramen Yamadaya's tonkotsu ramen is the closest thing to melting a whole pig into a bowl. The broth is so thick and so rich the viscosity is closer to 10W-30 motor oil than soup. Even the standard bowl of tonkotsu is imbued with the unmistakable shimmer of melted pig blubber: just a spoonful's sip contains the salty richness of a bacon slice and coats the tongue like a shot of straight cream–umami overload. And if you get the kotteri, which should only be attempted after your physician issues you a clean bill of health, you'll see a floating, glimmering stratum of fat purposefully ladled on top as if it were liquid frosting. The kakuni ramen–the porkiest one of all–comes with a deli's case of falling-apart, stewed belly as thick a 2-by-4 spanning the entire diameter of the bowl.
1. Donkatsu at Han Yang
Han Yang's donkatsu is made with extraordinary care; once sampled, the breaded pork cutlet will become the local benchmark for future breaded pork cutlets. It's served on a metal rack set above a plate, elevated above all else so every piece remains perfectly crisp and greaseless from edge to edge, top to bottom. And it's exactly that: perfect, with the meat between the crumbly coating so tender it crosses the line into fluffiness. Dribble on it the restaurant's fruity house-made dipping sauce with hints of apple, then spend the rest of the time pondering questions such as: How did the chefs do it? Did they use a mallet? Was it from a particularly soft and lethargic pig?
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.