The chubby midsection of Don Blanc’s menu is devoted to beef intestine. There isn’t a trace of a fine-feathered fowl or its aquatic equivalent. You can choose to barbecue the small intestine, the large intestine or the abomasum. Or you can be as predictable as I was and order from the list of pork barbecue—the ribs and shoulder butt. Don Blanc opened this summer in the Koryo Plaza, smack-dab in the middle of a Temescal I no longer recognize. In a previous lifetime, I used to walk through a less-lively neighborhood, several mornings a week, to get to the MacArthur BART station. Now, thanks to the pandemic slowdown, Telegraph Avenue is lined with outdoor cafes and safer, reinforced bike lanes. The street, crowded with eager diners and drinkers, is a microcosmic reflection of Oakland’s ongoing dining boom.
With its night-owl hours, Don Blanc is designed to fulfill the dreams of partygoers and carnivores alike. There are a dozen varieties of soju—all of which are priced at $12 a piece—and bottled or draft beers. A black-and-white outline of a pig adorns the menu. The restaurant’s social-media feed is devoted to photographs of grilled meats. When we arrived on a busy Friday night, the host asked us if we’d made a reservation. We hadn’t, but we were seated right away. The tables, many of them seated with large parties, are big enough to accommodate anywhere from four people to groups of eight or more.
To our right, two women shared the largest platter of kimchi fried rice I’d ever seen. To our left, a family had gathered to drink and order just about everything the place had on offer. One man at their table was so impatient—or so excited—to be served that he kept standing up, waving his nervous hands around and shouting to get the waiter’s attention. While his family ignored his shenanigans, an older, skilled server ventured over to their table. She murmured a few soothing words to him, which magically convinced him to settle down. Food and drink were on the way!
Round cast-iron grills rest in the middle of every table. After patrons order, someone on staff drops by to click the “on” button, and the grill begins to crackle and heat up. Thanks to the suspended stainless-steel hoods hanging above every table in the restaurant, our clothing didn’t become perfumed with smoke. The fine print at the bottom of the menu states that patrons must order two meat orders for the grill to get fired up. We followed the instructions, but did wonder how our neighbors got away with only ordering fried rice, which may be the only vegetarian menu item. If you want to try it, please take note: the fried rice appears on Instagram and a poster on the wall, but not on the menu itself.
Don Blanc’s approach to Korean barbecue feels like a nostalgic throwback to another era, especially after months of eating at home or rushing in and out of a restaurant to pick up a to-go order. When our server brought the plate of uncooked pork to our table, she cut the strips apart, with a loving but determined effort, before tending to them on the grill. She, and the only other coworker on the floor, returned from time to time to turn the meat and report on the status as it browned and became crispy.
While Don Blanc is never going to delight vegans or vegetarians, the array of banchan was mostly splendid and pickled to perfection. I loved a string of translucent white onions, pretty red discs of watermelon radish and cubes of daikon—nearly apple-flavored—that had all sweetened in their separate brines. Even though the series of small silver bowls arrived well in advance of the meat dishes, and a solid half hour before our pork was thoroughly cooked through, the fresh vegetables added a much-needed acidic counterpoint to all those tender morsels of meat.
Don Blanc, open every day 5pm to 2am, 4390 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. 510.350.8704. www.donblanc.com