Mystery of the Tin Pig

Or is it "Pig in a Can"? One thing's certain about this Korean joint: It's an adventure.

If you don’t speak Korean, you’d never know Kang Tong Degi was a restaurant. That’s because the sign is written in Hangul script. And there are no windows.

A couple of months ago my friend Doris told me about a place in Oakland a Korea-born co-worker loved. “Yumi says the name translates as ‘Pig in a Can,'” she wrote. Tin pig. Canned pig. Griddled pig. Something like that: Yumi isn’t clear. The pig thing’s a given, though, because Kang Tong Degi specializes in grilled pork belly. I had to schedule a visit.

So Yumi drove me and a couple of other friends to a storefront I’d passed by dozens of times. The front of the place looks like a stack of tin cans, with its Hangul name scrawled across in big yellow strokes. Inside the door is a narrow room broken into two rows of wood-paneled booths, each covered in cream-colored rice paper decorated with a Matrix-like shower of Hangul. Squeezing five people into one booth made for crimped elbows and constantly shuffling plates.

According to Yumi, Canned Pig — or whatever it’s called — is one of a handful of restaurants in Oakland and San Francisco that secretly serve great Korean food and make no effort to attract an English-speaking clientele. And in fact, the booths were packed with twentysomething Korean Americans, who ranged from frat to phat, doing some serious eating as they listened to Korean pop tunes from their teenage years. On my second night, a crew of white indie-rocker types in trucker hats rolled in, spotted my table, and threw us the “There goes the neighborhood” glare. “You have no idea,” I telegraphed back.

Yumi and our server translated the Korean-only bits of the menu, and we argued over our choices until we’d settled on an obscene amount of food. Griddled Pig’s menu is divided into grilled meats, soups, and a list of stir-fried, stewed, dried, and steamed dishes. Despite the bounty, everyone mainly comes to Pig in a Can to spark up the grill. The raw meat arrives laid out like flower petals on big ceramic plates. On the side come plates of shredded lettuce, tossed in a spicy sesame-oil dressing; little dishes of sauces and spicy bits; and a stack of two-by-four rice noodles, which look like uncooked, uncut chow fun.

Here’s how you eat it: Flick on the flame underneath the round metal tabletop griddle. Once it’s sizzling, tile it with slices of meat and turn them until they get brown and crispy. Quickly, peel off a strip of rice noodle, line it with meat, a little salad, and whatever else you think might spice it up — a dab of garlic-chile sauce, a smear of red miso, a raw garlic clove. Wrap up the roll. A dip into the salted sesame oil, and op! A little tart, a little heat, a lot of roasted meat, at once cool and hot, fiery and earthy. I watched the folks across the aisle delicately wrap their noodle rolls with their chopsticks, but after a couple of mishaps I switched to my fingers.

I told Yumi that the only time I had eaten this pork-and-rice-noodle combination before was in Koreatown in Los Angeles. “I think it’s an LA thing,” she said. “I’ve never seen this dish in Korea.” Perhaps it’s a story of a Korean restaurant opening up next to a Chinese noodle factory, or the culinary love child of a cross-cultural affair.

The meats were spectacular. All were marinated simply, some with nothing but salt and pepper, and frozen and sliced into precise geometric shapes. The bacon (actually fresh pork belly), came in thick fat-streaked squares, the sirloin in paper-thin circles, the top choice in finely marbled blocks. We ordered intestines, too, receiving a pile of tubes — cleaned and seasoned but not emptied of their contents — mixed in with sesame-marinated tripe. You can only blame yourself if you don’t cook the meat right, but most of it has enough fat to make up for your overcooking it. The tripe and intestines taste best when the edges have gotten crunchy and nutty-tasting.

Dining at a place like er, Tin Pig, means ordering not wisely but too well. In other words, you should order too much — stuffing yourself is the Korean way, or at least it’s my way when I’m eating Korean food. At least get a soup. The gut-warming bean-paste soup was flavored with miso, and a school of jalapeño slices floated ominously on top like jellyfish. Their sting wasn’t quite as fearsome as we thought; besides, with everything around it dyed red with spices, the tingle of the broth felt soothing. The same could be said of the clear, red tofu soup, filled with fluffy clouds of fresh soybean curd and lightly touched by the sea — a couple of baby squid in the stock.

If your tastes run to organ meats, you may want to try the sautéed soondae, a mild, custardy blood-and-rice-noodle sausage stewed with mustard seeds, cabbage, onions, and sesame leaves, which have a haunting herbaceousness. A couple of the other dishes didn’t rival the versions you can find at other Oakland restaurants such as Koryo or Jong Ga House: A green-bean pancake made with mung-bean flour studded with vegetables tasted great but didn’t crisp up in the pan. The chile-bean paste coating sautéed squid and vegetables came out a bit too sweet and oily.

A little help deciphering the Korean-only listings: The combinations, which range from $26 to $50, are designed for two to four people, and you can do a little mixing and matching of the meats within the appropriate price ranges. Combo number one, bacon and sirloin plus a bowl of soybean paste soup, is perfect for a pair of neophytes. The higher-priced combinations come with a bottle of soju, the potent Korean rice wine that’s halfway between sake and vodka.

On my first visit, though, we skipped the straight stuff and ordered some nontranslated Korean soju fruit drinks, the Smirnoff Ice of rice wine. They’re sweet, strong, and quick down the hatch. Lemon (think Country Time lemonade with vodka) is the most popular, but we also sipped on a sugary, artificially flavored yogurt drink. A small carafe is enough for two lightweights.

The other nontranslated items include steamed squid, dried-fish combination plates, a crimson chicken stew served bubbling in a low-slung wok, rice cake, and chicken gizzards. Reading them off, Yumi came across a dish she couldn’t readily translate. “Insects? No. Worms? No. What do you call it when a worm becomes a butterfly?”

“A cocoon?” Doris asked.

“Yeah, cocoons. Silkworm cocoons,” she replied. “They’re a kid’s food in Korea. I used to eat them, but now I don’t like them.”

We had to try them. The server tried to dissuade us. “You really want that?” she said, screwing up her nose.

“Do you like them?” I retorted.

“Only when I’ve had a lot to drink, and then I might try a few,” she said.

Well, folks, if you’re curious, a small bowl of stewed silkworm pods costs just $6.99. But I’ve tried them for you, and I can truthfully report it’s not worth it. The little pods, which looked like cockroaches without legs, had a nice, rubbery mouthfeel, but tasted like the crypt. We each tasted one. Then we covered the bowl to block the smell.

A quick hymn of devotion to our server, who was gracious enough to not say “I told you so” as she swept away the pods. On my first visit my four companions and I kept looking up from our trough to shoot her requests. More rice noodles. More cold barley water. More napkins. An extra plate. Bam! There it was each time, with a smile, even. Then she sent us a green-bean pancake on the house, and won our loyalty for all time.

I’m not quite sure I should be writing about Kang Tong Degi, or whether I’m going to really piss off the local Korean community by giving away one of their best-kept secrets. Are you brave enough, hip enough, or hungry enough to go there? Only you can be the judge.

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