By Edwin Goei
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Fried and Sauced
Load up on the Korean fried chicken at the Past Memories, but watch out for the sweet soju-laced drinks and their sneaky, easy-to-drink wallop
Have you ever heard of yogurt soju? It is as it sounds—a cocktail as only Koreans could dream it. It starts with that yogurty soft drink popular with Asian children, either Calpico or some Korean imitation. To this, some soju, the indigenous rice wine of Korea, is added. It arrives at your table in a flask, looking like moonshine for the manga set, and not particularly chilled.
Poured into shot glasses and swigged, it’s easy to drink—too easy. Each sip is only weakly alcoholic, tasting vaguely of Squirt and skim milk, as well as sweetly soothing, especially when your tongue has been lashed by spicy kimchi. But factor in more food, the cajoling company of friends and the place’s 2 a.m. closing time, and its slowly mounting effects can be easily underestimated until the Past Memories becomes more than just the restaurant’s name.
9252 Garden Grove Blvd.
Garden Grove, CA 92844
Region: Garden Grove
The yogurt soju is the most surreptitious and popular way to take your liquor here, but it isn’t the only one. The soju comes in other sneakily accessible flavors such as lemon, strawberry, grape, pineapple, mango, lychee and apple. Those who’d rather have their alcohol unadulterated can have Hite, the house beer, offered in fat, sweaty jugs or in a pitcher. Whatever your elixir of choice, the Past Memories makes you comfortable guzzling it in a sanctuary that looks like the grand mead hall from Beowulf mixed with an interior-design cocktail of telephone poles, traffic lights and license plates (all of which become inadvertent reminders to not drink and drive).
When you need more soju (and you will), simply push a button to summon the wait staff. But even before you ask, they’ll supply free snacks to offset the alcohol. A basket of Korean-style Funyuns or shrimp chips will be topped with freshly roasted dried squid, chewy jerky swatches best chased with cold beer.
Beer also pairs perfectly with their fried chicken, which bears no resemblance to the now-popular version made by the Korean chain Kyochon and its ilk, though this one is just as good. Battered lightly to insulate, then cooked to golden shimmer until the meat collapses in moist, marinated mouthfuls, it’s the kind of chicken a Korean mom would make at home without the aid of commercial equipment. Because it’s blessed with an excess of flavor, you never need to dip it in the salt-and-pepper mix or the saucer of red-chile paste they provide, but you should anyway. Neutralize the grease with a side of coleslaw, some homemade radish pickles and, of course, more beer.
Other fried things will sound tempting, but stick to the chicken, which, by the way, feeds four at $8.99. Skip the fried shrimp, in particular. It isn’t really shrimp, but shrimp meal reformed into breaded, shrimp-like shapes, which are then stacked like logs adjacent to a zigzagged pool of Thousand Island-y dipping sauce. Their hubcab-sized seafood pancake teems with rubbery octopus legs and jalapeños. The kalbi, a Korean barbecue rib sitting atop a sizzling mound of wilted onions, will satisfy, but only if you haven’t had it better, fattier and more luscious elsewhere.
Whatever you order, obligatory side dishes called panchan will come gratis and round out any belly space unclaimed by the chicken or alcohol. The white, Jell-O-like cubes wiggle, the chile-lacquered kimchi burns, and the crystal-clear chap chae noodles cool.
A roster of soups exists as a preemptive move to curb your future hangover. The fish-eggs soup gurgles in a menacing red-chile broth inside a hot metal cauldron. The featured protein floats curdled in sacs snipped off from the reproductive glands of an unseen mother. When bitten, the sacs burst, dispersing sand-grain-y bits of caviar into every corner of your mouth.
Another dish seems to have been conceived by someone who was drunk himself. How else to explain “corn cheese,” which, like the yogurt soju, is just as it sounds: canned corn niblets engulfed in a layer of melting mozzarella, broiled in an oven, then served on a sizzling-hot plate. Delicious? Yes. But perhaps it has another purpose. When you end up puking in some back alley, hazy on the recent past, it might serve as a reminder of where you spent your evening boozing. “Oh, look! Corn! And cheese! I must’ve been in the Korean District last night!”
The Past Memories, 9252 Garden Grove Blvd., Ste 29, Garden Grove, (714) 638-7818. Open Mon.-Sat., 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Dishes, $4.99-$20.99; cocktail soju, $13. Beer, wine and soju.