It’s not very often that a staffer stops me as I enter a restaurant and asks me if I’m sure I want to be there. So I was a little taken aback by the man who confronted me as I strode into Next Door and quizzed me about what kind of food I wanted to eat. Who was this, the bouncer?
Any momentary lapse of manners — on my part, I mean — was quickly assuaged when I realized my greeter simply wondered if I had walked into the wrong place: Next Door is the sister restaurant of Iron Age, a popular, all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue joint on Pleasant Hill Road in Duluth. The aptly named younger sibling, Next Door, which opened a few months ago, specializes in bossam (pork belly) and jokbal (pig’s feet).
The area is so saturated with barbecue houses, I’m starting to wonder if bossam and jokbal could be the next big thing. (Witness the recent arrival of Jok Ga A Dong Chim, also specializing in these parts of the pig, around the corner on Satellite Boulevard.)
Once seated at my table, my next cultural faux pas was attempting to order a combo meal of bossam and jokbal, a whopping spread that can feed from two to four and possibly more. All for little ole me.
“No,” said my server, Kevin. “You can’t do that. It’s too much.” He had no reason to discern that I was a restaurant critic on a quest to try everything I could in the interest of research (oink, oink). But his advice was well taken: I would have to return — with company — to order a multi-dish spread that could easily feed a small army.
And so I did, with great pleasure. And will do so again when I get a hankering to wrap delicately seasoned bossam, slices of raw garlic and jalapeno, and a dab of funky ssamjang into an ultra-thin radish slice. This dish excites all the taste buds in the way that only Korean food can.
Sure, that’s pork belly you are eating, but the unctuousness is cut by the variety of fresh vegetables (cucumber, carrot, napa) and the various kimchis, including a fiery-red chunky radish concoction served with every meal. The bossam is delicately seasoned, beguiling in its sophistication. (The only thing missing here is perilla leaves for wrapping.)
Not so subtle yet even more haunting is the sliced naeng chae jokbal, a spectacular salad of sliced pig’s feet, piled with matchsticks of apple and cucumber, shaved jellyfish, shredded crab stick, sesame seeds, a few rustic thick noodles, a scattering of pine nuts, lemon slices. It was visually stunning and so heavy on the “mustard sauce” it was a bit like having too much wasabi in the nose. Call me crazy; I just couldn’t stop.
On the other hoof (womp, womp), I found the warm, unadorned jokbal a pile of chewy, sticky brown gristle. (Wet wipe, please.) Not my thing, but apparently all the rage for collagen lovers.
I have yet to try the super-spicy buljokbal (fire jokbal), though one dish I heartily recommend for sharing is the budae jjigae, a spicy kimchi soup cooked tableside and loaded with no fewer than eight kinds of pork products (including Spam and pepperoni), vegetables, elbow macaroni, tofu and so on. There’s so much in the kitchen sink you never know what you’ll discover next. This is possibly the most delightful buffet-in-a-bowl since the Cheese ‘N Cheese at Food Terminal. The soup comes with the full complement of banchan, including a wonderful, mandoline-thin soy-soaked radish on the day we were there. And at $10 a person for lunch ($12 at dinner), it’s an amazing, crazy-delicious bargain. (You may also savor ox-bone, pork, chicken and chicken-noodle versions of these full-meal bowls.)
While you may not find yourself wanting for anything extra, consider an order of rice balls, bound with egg yolk and topped with snipped nori, and the mung-bean pancakes. A $4 pint of Kass beer or a bottle of sweet, milky, lightly sparkling makgeolli (sake-like rice wine) is an excellent accompaniment to this style of grazing.
As Atlanta’s Korean-American community grows, it’s delightful to explore a cuisine that is so much more than just table-top barbecue. One day, in a more perfect universe, the folks at Iron Age just might tap you on the shoulder and ask: “Pardon me. Are you looking for pig’s feet?”
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Sundays. 2131 Pleasant Hill Road, Number B3, Duluth. 770-680-4371, nextdoorkoreanrestaurant.com.
Recommended: Bossam, naeng chae jokbal, budae jjigae, rice balls.