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Korean Restaurant Harubang Spices up Buena Park

Beyond Barbecue Ribs
Harubang punches up Korean cuisine

The sight of Harubang's steamy windows promises warmth and refuge, like a log cabin found after a long, snowy trek. But the kitchen, repurposed from an old Taco Bell, also puts forth another incentive to drop by—the aroma of simmering garlic, Korean chile paste and toasted-sesame-seed oil. It reaches your sinuses subtly at first, but it intensifies as you come closer, clinging to your clothes long after the meal is over.

Inside the dining room, your brow begins to dampen, like the condensation accumulating on this side of those arched windows. But it's not because of the room's thermostat. It's because your eyes see what your tongue anticipates: spicy kimchi soups bubbling in cauldrons, rice mired in chile-bean paste. To squelch the inevitable flareups on your palate, water comes in tall plastic jugs with a flip-top lid, and the Hite beer is chilled near freezing.

Or you can choose to compound the burn with small jars filled with even spicier condiments. Our server pantomimed how it should be dabbed onto our food. I couldn't be sure which dish she meant for us to apply it to, so I put some on everything.

Thankfully, our ignorance isn't new to the folks at Harubang, nor to the dozens of Korean restaurants that have sprung up along the Buena Park stretch of Beach Boulevard. Non-Koreans wander in all the time, dizzy from the possibilities, scanning the menu for the familiar Korean barbecue ribs, and then relying on staff recommendations for the rest.

Once we found the kalbi, our server was eager to help us pick more dishes, compensating for the language barrier with hand signals. To demonstrate the diameter of a pancake we asked about, she curled her hands into C's and gestured a wide circle. To suggest others, she pointed to items on the menu and told us, "This spicy!" or, "This not spicy!"

Even if you don't ask, every meal will include complimentary banchan. Harubang offers eight in all, which automatically arrive before the main courses. These side dishes are to be eaten in concert with dinner-or as appetizers, if you just can't wait.

Chief among them is, of course, kimchi. Harubang serves it proudly in a volleyball-sized earthenware pot. And it isn't the usual napa cabbage. Instead, leafy greens with crunchy stalks are pickled with chile paste and garlic. The rest of the banchan menagerie ranges from simply steamed broccoli florets to a dense omelet to dried anchovies with heads attached.

The traditional Korean rice dish called bibimbap comes in six varieties. The tamest uses Korean barbecue short ribs as protein. Another is as spicy as our server forewarned and much more complex than what the menu conservatively described as "rice cooked with squid and vegetables." The rice arrives inside a hot stone pot, in which it continues to cook, topped with a brick-red pepper sauce riddled with calamari tentacles, onions, carrots, seaweed and julienned green herbs. The toppings are to be mixed thoroughly into the rice before consumption. Once combined, the dish eats like a lip-scorching seafood paella.

To dilute the buildup of kochujang in your mouth, there's sujebi, a soup featuring something called "dough flakes." The "dough flakes" turned out to be filling-less dumpling skin, hand-torn into slurpable sheets. But they do more than give the dish its noodle-soft chew; the starchiness thickens the broth to a murky white and silken consistency.

Just as large as our server indicated earlier, the green-chive pancake came on a plate as wide as a hubcap. Before serving, she snips the thin, crepe-like disc into squares with a pair of kitchen shears. And as far as I'm concerned, the pancake functions best when eaten by itself.

The kalbi, on the other hand, have to be eaten with rice (which Harubang offers in two forms: barley or regular). And on that end, none of us needed to be coached on what to do.

Harubang, 5941 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 670-8889. Call for hours. Dinner for two, $20-$40, food only. Beer and soju available.

 
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