One of the many reasons to patronize Korean restaurants is that you can often get pork belly and oysters—two of the world’s greatest food hits—on the same plate. Bossam, pork belly with lettuce and kimchi for wrapping, is sometimes served with raw or salted oysters. The most well-known bossam in New York is probably Ssäm Bar’s version, which must be ordered two days in advance and involves a whole, slow-roasted pork butt, a dozen oysters, and a $180 price tag (for six to eight eaters—to be fair). My new, favorite bossam is from what might as well be another world: It requires a trip to Ga Si Ri in Flushing, but it can be had for $24 and can easily feed three or more.
Order the sam kyup sal bossam (“bossam,” for short) at Ga Si Ri, and soon a gigantic platter is plunked on the table. Playing-card-sized slabs of braised pork belly occupy half of the plate, each slice leaning on the other like giant, streaky dominoes. Piled on the other side of the platter is a deep-red, crunchy mix of shredded daikon seasoned with chile-garlic sauce and scallions. This mixture harbors a generous serving of raw oysters, which comes as a surprise when you’re crunching on spicy radish and get a goopy bite that gushes oyster brine. Wrap a slab of pork belly in a piece of napa cabbage, top it with the radish-oyster combo, and drizzle it with “traditional shrimp sauce”—a sickly-pink liquid flecked with red that’s very salty and funky but is perfect as a part of the whole.
Ga Si Ri is an unassuming Korean charcoal-barbecue spot on a stretch of Northern Boulevard that is home to a mouthwatering array of Korean supermarkets, barbecue restaurants, casserole specialists, and fried-chicken joints. I was very excited about the charcoal barbecue (the charcoal’s smoky flavor is superior to that of gas), but we were told that the restaurant only barbecues their signature kalbi (sliced short ribs) over the flavorful wood. (It’s possible that the policy can be bypassed at the whim of your server, so try to ingratiate yourself.)
Flushing’s restaurants have the tastiest food in New York, situated as they are in the most diverse county (Queens) in the United States. Some cultural confusion is also part of the charm: We were seated at one of the large wooden tables and had just ordered, when we heard a commotion of laughter and raised voices behind us. Our server circled back with a worried look on her face. “The ox tongue and the black pork belly,” she said, “those are . . . traditional tastes. Can you eat them?” Yes, we assured her, we could definitely put down ox tongue and pork belly.
Many plates of mit banchan (“side dishes,” like kimchi), ox tongue, and pork belly later, our seafood casserole arrived. It bubbled red in its vat, and our beleaguered server ladled out a bowl to each of us. Lo and behold, the “assorted seafood” was really very assorted: There was a large clump of tightly kinked fish intestine in each bowl, along with crunchy-spongy fish stomach and other clods of fish viscera. We loved the spectacular brick-red, briny, sweet-spicy broth, but the casserole is not for everyone. (Oddly enough, the ox tongue and pork belly had caused restaurant-wide consternation about our eating abilities, but not the soup of fish guts. In any case, I think a wide smile and friendly insistence on your love of spice/offal/tongue/belly is always the best policy.)
With every meal, a vast array of mit banchan arrives as soon as you’ve placed your order. A good assortment of banchan is usually a reliable indicator of a fine Korean restaurant, and Ga Si Ri is no exception. There’s a hot clay pot of puffy steamed eggs, cabbage kimchi, pickled cucumbers, spinach with sesame oil, tiny, silver-skinned dried anchovies, spicy-sweet tofu, marinated black beans, and gelatinous beige acorn-starch cakes.
Kalbi is the restaurant’s specialty, and the meat you are guaranteed to have grilled over fragrant charcoal. You can order it either marinated or virgin. I’m always a fan of sauce—in every kind of barbecue; sorry, barbecue puritans—so I suggest you go for the marinated version. The kalbi comes in bite-sized nuggets, streaked thinly with fat. They grill up over the charcoal, sputtering juices, until they’re caramelized and crunchy in spots on the outside, but gush bloody, bovine, soy-garlicky juice when you bite into them. Wrap them up in red-leaf lettuce, smear on the salty soybean chile paste called gochujang, and add a bit of kimchi if you feel like it.
Each barbecue option we tried was similarly great, even though they were grilled over gas. The ori ros gui (fat slices of duck breast) arrives as fat rounds of garnet meat circled with a thick layer of duck fat that keeps the meat moist. Dip it in the mix of salt, pepper, and sesame oil before wrapping it up in lettuce—the austere salty condiment plays nicely with the duck fat. The ox tongue turns out to be well worth ordering, because in a sea of fatty cuts, the tongue is lean, with a mineral beefy savor.
The three-layer black pork belly arrives at the table as two eight-inch-long, half-inch-thick strips of raw pork belly (with, as advertised, three wide layers of fat). The gigantic pieces of belly are sizzled on the grill until the lean is tinged golden-brown. The strips are then snipped up into bite-sized pieces—wrap them in lettuce and eat your way to a coronary. I’m weary of seeing pork belly on every menu in town, but it’s impossible to be cynical about the pork belly at Ga Si Ri.
And although you can get fish-offal casserole, which will be very exciting for some, there’s something on the prolific menu for everyone—from bibimbop to kimchi jigae (tofu and kimchi stew). It might be the perfect Korean restaurant, if only they would roll out the charcoal more often.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 7, 2009