This list was a difficult one. How to just pick 10 restaurant out of the rich bevy of delights found at our Korean District? Or the burgeoning centers of Korean cultures in Buena Park and Irvine?
No list could ever be definitive enough to be absolutely conclusive or comprehensive enough to cover them all. So we approach this list how some of our favorite Korean eateries approach their meals: with a little bit of everything. Think of this list as little panchan tastes of what we think are the best of the best. We're also going for breadth rather than specificity; because we could've just as easily rattled off a list of just Korean BBQ's. But what's the fun in that?
In this list, we offer a representative from Korean fried chicken camp, a sullungtang joint, and even an obscure Korean taco truck called Kogi.
And if you don't see your favorite in here, add it in the comments! Like panchan, the more, the better.
10. Cafe Seventh Home
At Cafe Seventh Home in Buena Park, you can sip a sweet potato latte. One part milk and two parts sweet potato puree, this isn't so much a drink as it is a meal you suck through a straw. So sit idly and drink it slowly, sip by fulfilling sip, over meaningful conversation. Let the homemade waffles follow, topped with chopped fruit and ice cream, or better yet, the patbingsu, a mountain of fruit-and-red-bean slush in an oversized crystal washbowl. For the latter, you need to muster the cooperation of at least four persons to conquer this shaved-ice Everest.6291 Homewood Ave., Buena Park, (714) 735-9291; www.cafe7thhome.com
9. Pizza & Chicken Love Letter
Pizza & Chicken Lover Letter's "Crispy Fried Chicken" wears a crust more akin to batter than breading. But even here, the bird exhibits the common link to all Korean-style fried chicken: a skin thoroughly rendered of fat to become wisps, and often thoroughly absorbed and fused into the batter. The flavor is concentrated with a light touch of soy sauce, but the meat tastes of pure poultry-ness. Like its competitor BBQ Chicken across the parking lot, Love Letter does not seem to brine their birds, letting the meat become the platform on which the flavored crust and pickles build upon. The chickens are cooked well and juicy, even the white meat. The breast pieces are cut up into smaller segments so that no one person hogs it all...which is not to say it won't still happen.2600 Alton Parkway Irvine, CA (949) 852-2900. Also at 8891 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 530-8800.
8. Past Memories
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. 9252 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 638-7818.
7. Jang Mo Gip
Sullungtang, like pho, is beef-based. Like sundubu jjigae, it's Korean and served in a heavy, black pot. And like tonkotsu ramen, it's as murky as milk. But these similarities are superficial, for sullungtang has an identity and purpose all its own, ladled out and served where most soups begin--before it's seasoned. Take a sip, and your initial impression is that someone forgot to put in the flavor. But that's a task left up to you. At Jang Mo Gip--one of the few places in OC that cooks sullungtang--a vessel of sea salt awaits at each table, with a plastic spoon driven into the mound like a shovel in fresh snow. At first, you'll add just a pinch, then another and another, until you notice the soup--which tasted like dirty dishwater before--beginning to blossom. Its beefiness, previously imperceptible, now emerges from hiding, buttery and rich. Thanks to the salt and the 12 hours that the liquid spent simmering around ox bones (extracting its essence and lip-smacking collagen), it's ready to pay out dividends. 9816 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 534-1340.
6. Myung In Dumplings
Myung In makes a steamed bun so fresh it can't be handled for the better part of two minutes. They serve four to an order simply on a plain plate. A garlic-spiked bowl of pickled cucumbers, jalapeño and daikon steeped in soy comes on the side. You nibble on the pickles, which are meant to be palate cleansers, biding your time until the buns are cool enough to touch. When your patience runs out, and you bite into one, it's still scorching. So you do a little dance with your tongue to cool off the part you have in your mouth. Meanwhile, steam billows furiously from where you bit. Inside, a torrent of chives, minced pork and cabbage waits to spill out, perfumed by the scent of toasted-sesame oil. But it's the dough you marvel over. Moist but not damp, there's a lightness to it, an airy puffiness akin to a cloud. This is as perfect a texture as you've ever had--proof that when it comes to bread, whether oven-baked or steamed, freshness makes all the difference. 8911 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 638-4009.
5. Myung Dong Kal Guk Su
Myung Dong Kal Guk Su in Anaheim are experts in kalguksu, hand-cut noodles. The dish isn't just in the restaurant's name, it's the first thing listed on a menu that has fewer than a dozen items, a majority of them noodles. Order a bowl of the namesake specialty to start. A loose tangle of it swims in a big bowl of simple broth with a handful of cooked, ground pork sprinkled on top, a few meat-filled dumplings, shredded carrots and zucchini. The noodles--as pale as Japanese udon and as wide as Italian linguine--have a smooth texture and ghostly translucence. In the eating, they are softly pliant, with mouth-filling warmth. Grab them by the chopstick-ful; each slurp will be silkier than the last, as the starch shed by the noodles thickens the broth as you eat.
In Irvine, a city with no shortage of soondubu joints, Koba Tofu Grill is close to being one of the best. This is the second Koba in town; the first, on Culver, started as a soldier of the BCD franchise a few years ago. It soon defected to become Koba Tofu House, and from there, it slowly built an empire of its own. There are now Koba outlets in Diamond Bar and Fullerton. But this newest Irvine location--within walking distance of UC Irvine and its ready population of Korean stomachs--is already better than its sister location. The best way to enjoy Koba's soondubu is to opt for the combinations, which pair the soup with a protein, a searing stone bowl of bibimbap or a salad. If you want a protein, the raw crab should be your first choice; the Korean barbecue beef rib called kalbi should be second; and bulgogi, the boneless mound of thinly sliced, marinated barbecue beef third. In the latter two, the best bites come from the crisped pieces in direct contact with the scorching cast-iron platforms on which they're served.
The hype is gone, as are the lines; but the food's still good. Forget the tacos and the burritos. They're already the new normal. Trying everything else. The whole Kogi business model is to go for the unexplored and unusual. Marvel that Roy Choi's crazy mixups shouldn't work, but they do. Their Blue Moon mulitas look like UFO discs of strangeness, ugly but endearingly addicting--the best greasy, griddle-crisped tortilla/taco/sandwich thing that's shellacked in an unidentifiable purple-ish substance that might as well be made of delicious alien blood. Eat the sweet chili chicken quesadilla, which seems to inhabit not just Korean flavors with an omnipresent flavor of kimchi; but also Thai with the spicy/sweet/sour sauce restaurants typically use on egg rolls and Thai BBQ chicken. All of it perfect with the Mexi components of oozing jack and cheddar cheese, chicken and an enveloping tortilla that's been properly seared to a crisp golden brown. kogibbq.com
2. Shik Do Rak
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SHOW ME HOW
Know this: You will stink. The smell of sizzled meat will get into parts of you that you didn't think were reachable except by doctors. What did you expect from arguably the most popular Korean barbecue in OC, where you, your neighbor and the whole packed house are cooking inside what is essentially one big communal kitchen? The suction vents can only do so much. Added to the sweet, smoky fumes are the grease splatters. The sputtering pork belly has the blast radius of a small nuclear device. The thinly sliced beef "deckle" ripples relatively cleanly, but that's butter you're lubing the rib-eye steaks with. The side dishes called panchan are refilled constantly to slow down your meat-consumption rate. It's also the point of the duk bo sam, squares of thin rice noodles in which you wrap things after you drag them through chili paste and sesame oil. Oh, yes, you'll need a shower afterward--both for the guilt of dining to excess and for the accumulated greasy film on your skin.
If you were to judge a Korean restaurant by how many varieties of complimentary panchan dishes are offered, Kaya would automatically triumph. It puts out 10 in all, while most are content in providing half that. Each item tastes of motherly effort and care. Egg enriches the cooling potato salad, the chap chae wiggles, and the stewed potato cubes taste as though they were glazed in honey. We aren't even counting the complimentary crispy Korean pancake called panjeon, which could be considered the 11th panchan side dish if it weren't actually more like an appetizer you'd order freshly made and served hot. And then there are the main dishes: iron cauldrons of sputtering soft tofu soup, searing stone bowls of bibimbap, sizzling plates of luscious kalbi. Water is refilled without asking, and servers greet you warmly as you arrive and bid you farewell as you leave. In Irvine, where there are more Korean restaurants than McDonald's, these details make all the difference.14120 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 726-9424.