Review: Are you ready for Korean pig trotters and spicy sea snails?

Some years ago, British novelist A.S. Byatt came to Atlanta to deliver the Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University. As an AJC arts writer, I was assigned to cover the event, which kicked off with an all-day pig roast at Lullwater House, the lovely 1926 residence of Emory’s president.

The occasion, one would assume, was meant to introduce the Booker Prize-winning author of “Possession: A Romance” and “Angels & Insects” to the rituals of Southern barbecue: pulled pork, coleslaw and all the sides.

When it came time to eat, Dame Antonia Susan told her fawning professor-hosts that she would love “a bit of the trotter.” If only Jok Ga A Dong Chim had been around back then, we could have zipped out to Duluth for a spectacular meal centered around pig’s feet (jokbal). At this Korean restaurant that opened last summer, it’s the specialty of the house.

<< What is chuseok, the Korean harvest feast? 

I may be a Southern boy who grew up on a farm with hogs, but over the years, I’ve kept my distance from the gristly pink things in jars. Head cheese, pâté and sausage? Yes, please. Pickled pig’s feet? Nerp.

But long before the snout-to-tail revival (which — psyche! — started in England), many cultures (French, Korean, apparently the literary elite) have sought out the trotter for its lean, delicious meat and the chewy collagen-rich skin that encases it.

Jok Ga A Dong Chim, in the corner of a Satellite Boulevard strip mall, is where I had my recent conversion to Korean-style trotter.

Boiled for four hours in a secret blend of seasonings including apple and pear, the hauntingly flavored jokbal comes to the table as an elegant presentation. Carved into thin slices, its caramel-colored skin sprinkled with sesame seeds, it’s surrounded by a full complement of Korean banchan: pickled perilla and fresh romaine leaves for wrapping; slices of garlic and jalapeno; a pungent sauce made of salty fermented shrimp; many kinds of kimchi and other condiments.

While Gwinnett is home to a growing lineup of Korean barbecue and fried chicken places, Jok Ga A Dong Chim is the first trotter parlor I am aware of. (The restaurant’s name, according to a Korean friend, means something like “sleeping with the enemy,” though the significance of the pun will likely be lost in translation to many English speakers, including this one.)

If this style of eating seems intimidating, there’s no need. The menu is simple and uncomplicated, the servers lovely and happy to explain the cuisine.

Don’t let the price tag put you off, either. The best way to enjoy the experience is with a group. For $34.99 to $44.99, you can get a small, medium or large set of mild pig trotters, or a half-and-half of mild and spicy. (I suggest the plain version, as you’ll have plenty of prickly nibbles at hand.)

One smart option is to try a combo of jokbal and bossam (boiled pork belly, sliced and ready for stuffing into lettuce or perilla leaves). You also get a complimentary bowl of bright-red kimchi stew with tofu and pork chunks. It’s delicious.

To drink, there’s beer (no Asian brands, alas); soju (a clear spirit that’s the vodka of Korea); and makgeolli, a milky, slightly sweet fermented wine made from rice or other grain. I suggest makgeolli. The version offered here is every-so-slightly effervescent, so shake the bottle gently before pouring.

If alcohol is not your thing, a free container of what reminds me of genmaicha (Japanese green tea with toasted rice) will be placed on your table shortly after you arrive — pour a glass; it is so cool and refreshing. Then a server will load an assortment of little dishes onto a cart from a chiller beside the cash register and gracefully transport them to your table.

While you wait for the kitchen to prepare your main course, you may want to nibble on rice balls, mixed and shaped tableside by your server, with or without the addition of a soft steamed egg. I love these orbs of perfect rice, which pack a gentle crunch of sesame seeds and snippets of toasted seaweed, and consider them an essential palate wipe for toning down the intense flavor storm that often typifies Korean.

Back to the trotter: If chewy pig skin with a thin layer of fat underneath is not your thing, root around the dish for some choice pieces of meat. I’m into the jokbal and the bossam with nothing but a slice of raw garlic and jalapeno, plus a dollop of the mild, golden-brown sauce thickened with sesame.

But the dish that blew my ever-loving Southern white-boy mind was the spicy sea snails with cold noodles. You can get it paired with trotter, a setup that I liked even better than the bossam-and-jokbal combo. Toss the vermicelli with the kicky salad of escargot (another chewy-in-a-good-way morsel), cabbage, carrots and kimchi. Paired with pig, this flaming-hot dish is a great way to add some surf to your turf.

Eating at Jok Ga A Dong Chim was an education. Next time some hoity-toity European literary personage wants a taste of the town, maybe we’ll start with trotters and snails.

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