"It's not that you do sh*t, it's how you do it." -- Namond Brice, season 4 of the Wire.
That I thought of the above quote while having pork belly at Honey Pig, a Korean restaurant in Annandale, tells you two things. First, my obsession with the Wire is on the verge of becoming unhealthy (I've also started whistling the Farmer and the Dell before going into meetings with people I don't like at work).
Second, the genius behind Honey Pig's pork belly - the best in Delmarva - isn't the pork itself. It's how they serve it.
It being New Years Day, the odds were against us liking Honey Pig. Both Marcy and I were hung over from the previous night's festivities, our tastebuds sleep-deprived, numb and cranky.
Instead of nurturing our headaches with Advil and silence, we stepped into what appeared to be the Korean version of MTV's My Super Sweet Sixteen. The young Koreans at Honey Pig like to multi-task by simultaneously dining and clubbing. They chew and bop heads in rhythm to loud Korean hip-hop and high-quality American music like Britney Spears.
My choice of food was predetermined by all the reviews of Honey Pig celebrating the grilled pork belly. Both Candy Sagon of the Washington Post and Todd Kliman at the Washingtonian wrote reviews that highlighted the very one thing that doesn't deserve highlighting: the pork itself. Kliman wrote that Honey Pig's highest virtue was the "quality of the meats," adding, "the pork belly and short ribs have no peer."
They should brush up on their Baltimore street principles - it's not always what you do. You just need to look at the menu prices to know that Honey Pig isn't scouring the Virginia countryside for the most exquisite, farm-fresh cut of Berkshire or Kurobuta. I got my pork belly for $8.95, so I'm guessing they use cheap factory-farm pork.
I'm okay with that, because the real innovation at Honey Pig is how they do it.
Traditionally, Koreans eat their pork belly "ssam" style, meaning they wrap unseasoned slices of pork in lettuce leaves stuffed with hot peppers, raw pieces of garlic, and a spicy condiment called ssam jang.
I think this approach puts too much pressure on the raw garlic and condiment to nail the flavor profile, yet all Korean restaurants in Baltimore serve it that way. Pork belly, with its grease and fat ribboning, should be the ultimate post-party drunk food, but I've had the surreal experience of sharing a big grill of pork belly with three intoxicated college buddies who normally love Korean food and were totally unimpressed by their late-night ssam.
And I've yet to find any pork belly in the District.
Honey Pig's version is the best in the Delmarva region because, although they give you the option of the traditional ssam, they leave the ancestors' techniques in the past with these tricks:
1. They marinate the pork in ... something Top Secret. When I asked our waitress about the identity of the marinade, she responded like I was asking her to disclose South Korean military secrets. Maybe it's one of those obvious secrets, like Kim Jong Il's wig, but I'm pretty sure the sauce isn't honey, as the name of the restaurant would make clear. I'm going with gochujang, the Korean chili paste, and probably a splash of soy sauce. Not only does the sauce improve the taste of the pork, it also caramelizes as it crackles on the grill, giving it a crispy crust.
2. A whole bunch of kimchee and beansprouts are thrown on the grill alongside the pork, so during the cooking process, the meat picks up those salty-sour kimchee flavors. The crunchy panchan vegetables net the dish some texture points.
Without Honey Pig's innovations, pork belly can taste bland. With them, I can vouch for pork belly as a good hangover cure, with great flavor the only rejuvenative property required. As the pork belly and kimchee combo worked its magic on me, I began shaking it to the music. Just like a young un', as Omar would say.
More dishes at Honey Pig:
Marcy's bim bim bap