Oh yeah, I've gotta try this one. But I'm outta there before all the Korean pop music gets blasting.
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Have you had corn cheese? Perhaps the most literal foodstuff on Earth, the dish consists of corn niblets straight out of a can mixed with grated mozzarella cheese and mayonnaise, the whole thing broiled on a fajita skillet and served at your table still fuming. It may sound revolting, but it's a glorious dish. The union of sweet corn and salty cheese is nothing short of kismet. And whenever I'm scooping some out, the stretchy spider webs of mozzarella trailing my spoon as though it were a Chicago deep dish, I know that pours of ice-cold Hite and soju are forthcoming—because when there's corn cheese on the table, I'm probably in a Korean bar such as the new Zoomak Asian Bistro.
And that's what Zoomak is. The Asian Bistro part of the name is misleading, included so non-Koreans are assured this place—located in a barren strip mall in an industrial part of Buena Park—makes some kind of food. But the Hangul characters for the word "Zoomak" tells a Korean everything he or she needs to know. "Zoomak" is the Korean term for a tavern. If that doesn't mean anything to you yet, just consider it the Korean version of a Japanese izakaya, an establishment where alcohol and anju (food that goes well with alcohol) is served. And yes, this includes corn cheese, something I've not found outside of such places as this.
Just as with a proper izakaya, Zoomak opens at 5 p.m. and closes at 2 a.m. Actually, the place doesn't come alive until about 9 p.m., when most of the customers start arriving and each of its dark wood booths are crammed with groups of young Koreans, none of whom look older than 35. It's around then that Zoomak turns on the laser lights, and the volume for the Korean music videos projected onto a large screen is dialed up to dance-club levels. Throughout the night, a kitchen crew tends to stoves on which enormous stockpots simmer and all manner of Korean pancakes sizzle on a griddle.
7309 Orangethorpe Ave.
Buena Park, CA 90621
Region: Buena Park
When you go, you must get one of the pancakes—or better yet, order all of them in a sampler called Every Pan Cakes. For less than $20, you get six to eight kinds, each painstakingly made-to-order and served all at once. The bright-orange one is made of spicy kimchi held together by thin batter. The one with veins of green running through it is the chive pancake. Others have an elastic chew similar to Japanese okonomiyaki, while some taste exactly like egg foo young. But there are a few that are pancakes by name only. The one that resembles a burger patty is actually one; made entirely of ground beef, it's aromatic of toasted sesame-seed oil and as sugary as bulgogi.
The Every Skewers is another sampler platter, this time with a double serving of all nine kushiyaki-style skewers, including a pair of chicken ones that's not unlike yakitori, two sticks of Hawaiian beef meatballs, and perfectly cooked scallop kebabs. The best of them might be the cocktail sausages, which are simple and smoky. Also great: the shrimp skewers and the thinly sliced beef, which is threaded between scallions turned to papery wisps. You would be well-advised, however, to eat the bacon-wrapped ddukbokki (rice cake cylinders) before they dry out and turn into inedible glue sticks. Do it while pondering the saintly patience of the person who had to thread the pea-sized ginkgo nuts through the skewers, or that the restaurant is doing itself a disservice offering this massive sampler for not more than $25.
While you're at it, you must also order the specialty of the house: a whole roasted dried squid served with peanuts. It's splayed out in all its tentacle-y glory, chews like shoe leather and is meant to be eaten with some wasabi-spiked mayo; it's undeniably addictive, especially when you get the hang of where to tear it apart with your hands. (Hint: Start pulling at the conveniently placed cuts along the edge, and they'll come off like the tabs on a room-for-rent flier.)
In between the skewers, the pancakes and the squid, you should be toasting your tablemates with Hite (the only Korean beer they serve at the moment) or, better still, shots of the sweet rocket fuel that is Chamisul. Then, before the corn cheese and alcohol start to settle, order the Mini-Oden Bar, which is a hot pot of various fish-cake skewers and broth bubbling inside a camp-stove-heated casserole dish. This, above all, is the most popular thing at Zoomak because it's a communal dish. And that's entirely the point: It's an unwritten rule that no one should go to a Korean bar alone, nor should they leave before getting their share of corn cheese.