Three-layered flesh” is the translation of the Korean word samgyeopsal, or what English speakers refer to less vividly as pork belly. Meat, fat, and skin stack up as the most popular cut on the grill among Koreans, and you can find it at pretty much every barbecue house in the city and suburbs. What you don’t find very often—the way you would in Korea—are samgyeopsal specialists: operators who focus on belly, capitalizing on a national-size appetite for crispy, spitting-hot mouthfuls of pig belly, dredged through salty sesame oil and wrapped in lettuce leaves with a smear of funky soybean paste and a sliver of griddled garlic.
But now there’s a new strip-mall source for samgyeopsal bearing the logo of a smiling suicidal porker, and a name, Pro Samgyubsal, that, despite the less common transliteration, can only inspire confidence in the activities therein.
The restaurant has two rooms, each with spacious tables inset with convex gas burners. It’s regrettable that these aren’t powered by charcoal, but as they’re fired up and the yawning overhead exhaust fans kick in, any draftiness is replaced with a porky warmth that suffuses the air and seduces your olfactory system.
There are just five choices from which to order when it comes to pork belly, distinguished by variations in cut, provenance, and preparation, each arriving as two thick slabs to an order. There’s a basic pork belly, a “natural” belly, “natural” belly with the skin left on, belly scored on the diagonal to increase the grill’s penetration, and finally, slices of hog jowl, which in terms of their fattiness and firmness taste fairly similar to pork belly.
These choices all have subtle textural differences. If you favor a bit of a gnaw, go for the jowl or the skin-on slabs. If you don’t enjoy the resistance, get the more tender scored belly. It’s up to you, armed with tongs and scissors, to grill and portion these pieces, supplementing them with sliced white onion, garlic, chile peppers, and long leaves of pungent kimchi. Don’t forget to season them with sea salt. It’s also up to you how to package these little morsels: wrapped in cool lettuce or thin slices of pickled daikon, with the salted sesame oil gireumjang and the funky fermented ssamjang, a potent mixture of red chile and fermented soybean paste.
You’ll have a modest assortment of the usual side dishes that come with a Korean meal, such as the radish kimchi kkakdugi, soy-marinated onion, and a few less common ones, such as spicy, chewy dried radish and sweet pickled onion that bears a striking resemblance to ramps.
Pro Samgyubsal also offers a few beef options: Wagyu short ribs, boneless or flensed and unfurled from the bone like a tail, as well as thin, frozen curls of brisket that flatten and cook in seconds like a Steak-umm.
The menu’s brevity underscores what’s important. There are only four soups available, which is remarkable given that soup is essential at every Korean meal. There’s a kimchi stew, a peppery, beefy ttaro gukbap, and the earthy bean-paste doenjang chigae that comes with each order.
If you’re not feeling much like cooking, a large roiling cauldron of kimchi, tofu, and pork belly, a spicy and slightly sweet stew, can be brought to the table, or if you’re feeling more spartan, a bowl of bibimbap—without hot sauce or egg but loaded with gondeure, Korean gondre thistle—can provide your daily recommended antioxidants.
Apart from two cold noodle dishes—the sweet buckwheat noodle soup mul-naengmyun and its spicy, dry gochujang–
slathered cousin bibim naengmyun—that’s all the food there is at Pro Samgyubsal. Along with the usual Korean and Japanese beers, there are a few brands of the fermented rice brew makgeolli and a small selection of soju.
But a lack of possibilities isn’t a liability at Pro Samgyubsal, when all you really need is three layers of flesh. v