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Photo by James BunoanTime was that when you got an urge for local Korean food, you'd drive to one of the Garden Grove Korean Business District's many diners, grocery stores or bars. But now there's a second non-Koreatown option: ever since the 1992 LA riots, a steady exodus of Koreans has relocated to northwest Orange County. The result is an explosion of Korean restaurants in Buena Park's portion of Beach Boulevard—Buena Korea!
Most Korean restaurants specialize in a particular offering, and those in Buena Korea are no different. For example, Jang Mo Restaurant specializes in soup, offering six aromatic choices. Korean soup is difficult to appreciate at first because most are bland at serving. It's up to you, gentle gastronome, to throw into the liquid heaven generous amounts of granulated salt, scallions, white rice and pungent hot mustard to create flavors unknown. With the added ingredients, you'll unlock the potential of the peppery yook gejang (advertised as vegetable soup but laden with beef shreds) and the three types of gomtang (as delicious as its much-celebrated cousin pho, it's slowly simmered in beef bones) that makes this joint a must-slurp. 4546 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 228-0767.
Another Korean standard is the tofu house. The Korean take on this most tasteless of proteins has made me a lifelong covert to the soybean extract, especially the wonders that Chong Ki Wa Tofu Restaurant creates. The tiny eatery offers nine different tofu-centric soups, ranging from tofu and oysters to their namesake house specialty. I prefer the tofu with pork and beef, served boiling-hot and similar in taste and texture to fagiole. At your request, the server will crack an egg in it, giving the tofu a yolkier taste. You can order any tofu dish on a sliding spice scale to give it an even better seasoning, ranging from one (white, clear broth) to five (hydrochloric acid). 5238 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 562-8989.
The ultimate Korean dining experience is a barbecue house, and Buena Korea's best version is Hwang's Restaurant. The hostess will cook at your grill-anchored table your pick of 16 meats, ranging from the expected (a fine pork cutlet) to the exotic (I detected no significant difference between the bull and cow stomach—both melt in your mouth) to the eeewww (you tell me how grilled eel tastes). To get the appropriate essence, dip your meat in the provided salty butter, smother it with samjahng paste (don't be fooled by its initial peanut butter taste; the goop is piquant) and wrap it with a lettuce leaf. Plop it in your mouth, and let the flavor hit you like a velvet glove. 6552 Manchester Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 736-0707.
The culmination of all these methods—and more—is Oh Jang Dong Restaurant. The banquet hall has everything in the Korean grub galaxy—terrific tofu, beatific barbecue, savory soups and noodles. Did I forget to mention noodles? The most common noodles at Korean restaurants—nang myun (buckwheat noodles)—takes getting accustomed to, even more so than the soups. Nang myun is a slightly acrid glob of pasta floating on a chilled chile broth and accompanied by a hearty beef broth served as a beverage to give it the proper taste. To their credit, the folks at Oh Jang Dong make sure to offset the noodles with sweet meat to give your taste buds some relief. 7880 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 228-0986.
The true centerpiece of any Korean meal, though, is not the main course but the panch'an. Panch'an is a term referring to the random side orders that come with every serving and constitute a feast unto themselves. The mini buffet can consist of anything from the Korean staple kim chi (pickled cabbage that can either soothe or sear) to more adventurous offerings such as gongchi (a type of fish) and baby onions soaked in a fiery barbecue sauce.
The panch'an platform is what makes Korean cuisine an addiction worth cultivating. At Oh Jang Dong, for example, I like to stuff my mouth with the bitter nang myun and add some sour kim chi, which I quickly neutralize with its spicy red comrade, then coat my tongue with sweet pickles, and finally, I cleanse my palate with bland white rice. Depending on what you order, the amount of panch'an will vary in number from the three given at Jang Mo to the eight (plus octopus soup!) at Hwang's. Go now!