Bulgogi House Is the Palace That Meat Built
Photos by Jennifer Fedrizzi
It's a good idea to forgo meat a week before going to Bulgogi House. On the day of your trip, skip breakfast. If you're going for dinner, have a salad for lunch. Bulgogi House, as you may have guessed, is an AYCE (all-you-can-eat) Korean barbecue restaurant--the kind of place at which you pay a nominal amount for the opportunity to try to stuff more animal protein down your gullet than any health professional would say is advisable. But Bulgogi House is more than just your typical Korean barbecue joint; it's also a full-on buffet, with an assortment of sushi, fried dumplings, miles of side dishes, and desserts (including pumpkin pie and s'mores), so it's conceivable a person could never touch a piece of Korean barbecue meat but still overeat.
Bulgogi House is also unlike other Korean barbecues in that it's not in Irvine or Garden Grove or Buena Park, where most Koreans and Korean barbecues are typically found. Instead, it's in La Palma, in a standalone building with its own parking lot, tucked underneath a freeway overpass. Inside is a vast eating hall with exposed ducting, marble and steel--a spotless and smokeless room that's so clean and sterile you could perform surgery in it. Despite this, it still manages to draw huge crowds. Perhaps that's a testament to the reputation of the original Bulgogi Houses in Rowland Heights, or maybe it's that the cost of entry for a weekday all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue lunch is $14.99 per person, one of the cheapest in Orange County. It's a price attractive to those whose cholesterol levels and disposable incomes can still afford it.
The fee is a bit more on weekends, but it's still a rather reasonable $20.99 per person for what's called the "Deluxe Menu," which gives you more meat options than the weekday lunch. The restaurant also offers a $26.99 "Premium Menu," on which 10 choices of meat are added to the 35 you get with the "Deluxe." My advice is to stick with the "Deluxe"--it's plenty. Also, after trying almost all of the additional "Premium" options, I've come to the conclusion that the dollars are better spent on more soju.
On the "Premium" side, there was the prime roast beef, perfect rectangles of fat-striped steak that seized up to chewy leather on the grill. The prime boneless rib and the prime marinated boneless rib ended up so dry the texture bordered on sawdust. The prime sesame marinated beef shrank to rubbery nubs that my friends and I had to will ourselves to finish so that we could move on to the next batch of meat. The kalbi was fine, and so was the shrimp, but the smoked Duroc pork belly--essentially just thick-cut bacon--rendered down to the chewiness of a shoe.
In contrast, just about everything we asked for from the "Deluxe" side of the menu melted in our mouths. The Duroc pork jowls (which is also part of the $14.99 "Basic Lunch" package) gushed sweet fat. Then there was the original pork belly and red wine pork belly. Though the difference in flavor was slight, both were good in the only way that mattered: They reduced to the hot, rippling, crispy pieces of pork Koreans refer to as samgyupsal. We dunked them into salted sesame oil, then tucked them inside rice-noodle squares called dduk.
We ate some panchan side dishes we took from the buffet, if only to cleanse our palates (and to put some fiber in our guts to aid with digestion). The kimchi was particularly punchy, the pickled cucumbers refreshing, and the wonderfully light potato salad had pieces of apple in it. If you go, know that you should also grab some lettuce and the thin-sliced pinkish discs of daikon radish that resemble drink coasters. Use them both as wraps. And don't skip the two kinds of deep-fried dumplings, the soy-soaked tofu cubes, and the japchae, those clear stir-fried noodles that have a bungee's bounce.
Those who are new to AYCE barbecue should take cues from the customers or the servers, who are young and helpful. They'll bring more meat (four plates at a time) and snip the bigger pieces into smaller ones, even if it makes you a bit nervous that they'll use the same tongs to handle a raw piece of pork before picking up a cooked one to put on your plate. And by all means, order the bulgogi, which is sweet, sugary and softer than the rib-eye steak on the "Premium" list. You needn't go the AYCE route to have it, either: the bar serves a great à la carte menu that includes a massive bowl of it already cooked with rice and a fried egg for only $8. It's still enough protein to warrant the weeklong meat fast I suggested earlier, so rejoice!
Bulgogi House, 6901 Walker St., La Palma, (714) 522-2996; bulgogihousebarbecue.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight. $14.99 to $26.99 per person. Full bar.
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