If Cambodians run the doughnut-shop industry in Orange County and Cuernavacans the loncheras, then Koreans are surely the masters of the office-park deli, those smorgasbords of sandwiches, sodas, chips and salads that keep the county's office drones fed and . . . well, if not satisfied, at least full. Most of them have existed for years but only recently have flexed their cultural muscles beyond the teriyaki bowl—you're now starting to see owners offer Korean burritos, kalbi sandwiches, even the odd Nong Shim instant ramen bag.
I never suspected Buns N Rice of being part of this second wave, although I guess the name gave it away in retrospect. It's near the Weekly world headquarters in a space that used to house a forgettable deli, which meant I never had high hopes for it. But a tipster told me it had a great bimimbap, that legendary hodgepodge of veggies, meat and rice served in a heated stone bowl. I walked to Buns N Rice and found a friendly man who asked if I knew what bimimbap was—of course, but in case I didn't, an excerpt of the dish's Wikipedia entry was taped to the window next to the few tables in the restaurant.
Buns N Rice, 20048 Santa Ana Ave., Ste. 105, Costa Mesa, (714) 979-3051.
This was not the bimimbap I expected; it was streamlined toward assimilationist tastes. Gone was the meat, the heated stone bowl; in their place were carrots, lettuce, spinach, strips of scrambled eggs and warmed rice, all served in a plastic bowl with a top for convenient transport back to the cubicle. This bimimbap looked a little too nice, too Americanized—but the owner also included ramekins of sesame-seed oil and Korean chili paste to mix and tie all the pieces together. The result was ingenious—objectively, a good-great bimimbap, but a figurative smash. Despite Korean fusion's entry into Southern California palates, I still maintain Korean cuisine (along with Filipino) is one of our most criminally underappreciated cuisines, and Buns N Rice's demystified bimimbap presentation is a delicious Trojan Horse to get office drones to slowly graduate to the delicious kalbi, fine bulgogi and, finally, a boiling bowl of Nong Shim topped with silky egg.
Would I like to see Buns N Rice try fusion? Maybe—I can see it excel with a Korean sandwich, or maybe a Philly cheesesteak over rice and chili paste in a bowl (its sandwiches are also fine, if expected). In the meanwhile, make sure to buy a can of Cactus Cooler to wash down your bimimbap—the owner will get a smile as wide as the El Toro Y.