"You'll know you've arrived at the right place when you spot a demure storefront with a cartoon caricature of a jolly pig."
It's no secret that New York epicures have a love affair with the pig, especially the fatty, decadent cuts such as the jowl, rind and belly. It's certainly en vogue for pork belly to occupy a prominent place on menus, from trendy eateries to fine dining. But I'd like to let you in on a secret that's too good to keep to myself. There's a restaurant called Tong Samgyeop Gui in Flushing—just a 20 minute hop, skip, and a jump on the LIRR—that serves some of the finest pork belly in New York.
You'll know you've arrived at the right place when you spot a demure storefront with a cartoon caricature of a jolly pig. The perky porcine promoter may be blithely unaware of the carnage that is inflicted upon his kin within, but patrons of Tong Samgyeop Gui know better—the samgyeopsal (pork belly) here is sensational.
On my many visits, the restaurant has been reliably busy, and the place buzzes with the full-throttle energy of friends and families chowing and imbibing in cheery excess. Customers are seated surrounding a large conical cast iron grill at cozy, utilitarian tables. The menu places emphasis on samgyeopsal, though daeji bulgogi (spicy pork loin), gopchang (beef intestine), and naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles), served in a bowl made of solid ice, can also be ordered. An order of samgyeopsal comes as two generous slabs to an order ($19.99), and includes all you care to eat fixings, including napa cabbage kimchi, kongnamul (seasoned bean sprouts), and a bottomless basket of leafy green lettuce.
The cooking surface and implements may be within reach, but the diner's job is to relax, sip on a cold Korean beer, slurp a complimentary bowl of satisfyingly funky kongnamul guk (bean sprout soup), and observe the restaurant staff transform raw ingredients into something truly delicious. At just the right juncture, when the pork has been cooked to an irresistible crispiness and just the right amount of lingering juiciness, dive in and begin eating.
It should be mentioned that to be this close to your food is truly an experience for all of the senses. Watch as the sensationally fatty strips of pork belly impart their essence into the kimchi and bean sprouts. Listen to the sizzle and pop, and smell the heady notes of browning pork. Most notably, since diners are seated precariously close to the cooking surface, feel the fine pin pricks of sporadic hot splatters on your hands and wrists. Don't fear, but relish the experience—there's much gastronomical pleasure in the occasional pain.
The restaurant's matronly owner will sometimes swing by and curate her method of assembling a sangchu ssam (lettuce wrap). Cup a leaf of lettuce into your off-hand, pluck a piece of crispy pork belly from the grill and cradle it into your greenery, anoint with a dab of dwaenjang (salty bean paste), and then place a curtailed portion of each and all vegetation, kongnamul muchim, dong chi mi (pickled turnips), pa muchim (scallion salad), and gochu jangajji (pickled hot peppers).
Finally, add a single peppercorn, fold close your lettuce wrap, and pop the entire lot into your mouth. The result is a dizzyingly complex, but dazzling bite of food. However, the decision of how to eat your samgyeopsal is entirely your own. You could opt for a bespoke ssam by adding or removing ingredients and sauces, or one could simply drag a nugget of crispy pork through sweet tonkatsu sauce and savor the abridged flavor.
An appropriate coda to the meal is to request a few orders of bokkeumbap (fried rice; $1.99). This comes as a healthy scoop of luscious rice—fragrant from a heavy pour of sesame oil, zesty from gochujang (spicy chili paste), and deeply savory from a snowfall of gim (roasted seaweed). The rice is cooked on the same vessel, which is now glossed with lingering pork shrapnel and rendered fat. The frenzy of the earlier round of eating decelerates to a calm civility. Sip on a round of soju or two, share a few alcohol-lubricated stories with your dining companions, and occasionally prod at the sizzling rice. Patience is rewarded with rice that's glistening and fluffy on top, but bears a toasty caramelized nurungji crust, like of the desirable socarrat of a proper Spanish paella. It's an astonishingly good riff on fried rice, and should not be missed.
Perhaps we've uncovered the dark secret of the enigmatically beaming boar plastered on the store front. That wide maniacal grin and blank gaze may have been provoked by the satisfying bokkeumbap and seriously good pork belly found within. I would never advocate cannibalism, but in this case, Mr. Pig, your secret is safe with me.
Tong Samgyeop Gui
162-23 Depot Rd, Queens, NY 11358 (map) 718-359-4583
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