▲ Sanjeok' has a great location in the center of the city hall area Photo courtesy The Jeju Weekly
It was my 26th birthday. I elected my friend Leonard Castro to pick a place to eat as he was the “Jeju veteran” compared to the rest of our party. I was right to trust him; the restaurant he chose was the perfect spot for the occasion.
Their samgyeopsal, Korean pork belly, was an experience and the ambiance was both fun and intimate. Plus, the location was ideal. In the middle of the Jeju City Hall area, we could easily hit many other fun establishments afterwards.
From that first feast on, we dubbed the restaurant the “Shovel Place” and didn’t bother to learn it’s real name until only recently, even though it has become our weekend go-to spot.
We call it the Shovel Place because their grills have a striking resemblance to shovels, the kind used to shovel snow in your driveway after a blizzard. There’s even a ring where you could ostensibly jam a wooden handle, but when I mention this, the owner Cheong Joo-ho chuckles and insists that they are not actual shovels.
▲ Barbecue pork on shovel-like grills Photo courtesy The Jeju Weekly
He chose the grills twelve years ago when he opened his restaurant specifically for the kind of thick black metal they are made of, which looks like cast iron. These substantial grills remind him of those used in the days of yore, when he was a kid barbequing with his family on plain slabs of metal.
Cheong Joo-ho appears to be a meticulous man. He is slender, silver-haired with slacks and his buttoned shirt always tucked in. He’s constantly making laps, overseeing the perimeter of his restaurant.
Not only did he carefully choose his grills, but also he makes sure to select the optimal pork cuts for his dishes. And what is his secret? Female pigs. Furthermore, he never freezes his meat, so the texture and moisture stays just right. And there is something special about his samgyeopsal.
My friends and I have spent meals arguing what makes it special, whether it’s has a special powder or marinade, but it’s much simpler than that. Like any meat enthusiast can tell you, you can’t go wrong with a good cut and a nice grill.
▲ Sanjeok's ambiance is its killer feature Photo courtesy The Jeju Weekly
For me, what cements Sanjeok into my number one spot is the ambiance. Maybe you could easily pass this place without a thought, but it’s really a hidden treasure out in the open. Inside, it feels like a dark cave with pen scratched into the wooden walls. The few art pieces are even a little creepy. Young servers buzz around while the ever-dutiful owner Cheong seems everywhere at once.
When you walk in, you are hit with a wave of the smell of pork. There is the chatter of happy customers and pop music, usually Rihanna, is playing in the background. There is an ebullience in the air.
You sit down at a circular table. The aluminum of the table is cool to touch as you wait for the banchan, side dishes, to come out and you order your food. Bubbling cream corn with a pinch of spice comes out first on a black metal slab on wood. Then the doenjang jjigae follows, with tofu, pork, and kimchi boiling hot inside a dolsot stone bowl and trivet.
The already lit grill begins to heat your face. The servers assist you in the beginning of the preparation of the pork, which sizzles satisfying when it hits the hot metal. Watching the pork cook feels like tuning into prehistoric television. There’s often a few moments of silence as everyone watches, anticipating the goodness that’s about to hit our taste buds. Try to flip the meat just once to capture the flavor.
▲ Photo courtesy The Jeju Weekly
When the meat is fully cooked and cut, you experiment with making the most pleasurable bite using the lettuce, garlic, kimchi, sprouts, chile, and sauces set out for you. You wrap your creation into a mouth-sized ball, take a bite, and jump into culinary bliss.
The pork is moist, yet toasty. The lettuce and sprouts are refreshing. The garlic, chile, and sauces make the dynamic flavors pop. You take a drink of soju, probably Hallasan, to clean the palate and cut the grease, and repeat.
There is another few moments of silence when you first eat. You and your friends are in the zone where the chattering around you barely hits your perception. The pork is that good. As you eat, the pork fat drips onto the cooking kimchi and sprouts, so near the end of the meal, the kimchi has become greasy and flavor packed.
Many Koreans talk about the health benefits of samgyeopsal, how the fat is loaded with collagen that’s good for your skin and it can even clean your airways of yellow dust pollution, but I don’t need any explanation to be convinced of its magic power. You can taste it.
Truth be told, Sanjeok has a really basic menu with three cuts of pork: pork belly, skirt steak, and pork neck. However, the simplicity of this place is its best selling point. If you want a straightforward, yet delicious dining experience on a burning Friday, Sanjeok is the place to go. You’re welcome.
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