Ching Chinese Express Has Noodles Like Van Gogh Paintings
One of the most accursed pieces of real estate in Orange County is a building near the corner of Walnut and Red Hill avenues in Tustin. Every couple of years, a new Korean market opens in it . . . and every couple of years, a market closes. Right now, the cavernous space is abandoned, a ghostly landscape set upon a shopping plaza that hosts multiple vacancies and a desolate parking lot; the scene is like something out of The Walking Dead. But just next door to that market space, in a food court designed to connect with the now-empty space, a couple of food stalls run by Koreans continue to thrive. Lunchtime is busy, as people take food to go or eat at the few tables bunched together just a couple of feet from the mini-restaurants. They don't all sell Korean food, mind you: only one vendor offers straightforward bowls, noodles and barbecue. Instead, a sushi maker offers gigantic rolls in the Korean style. And Ching Chinese Express at the very end sells Korean Chinese cuisine, a culinary tradition that doesn't have nearly enough representation in OC.
Ching's has survived two Korean supermarkets closing, partly by selling dishes that most Americans will quickly identify—sweet-and-sour-beef this, orange-chicken that, dumplings, gyoza and all that jazz. Since it's just a counter, most of the specials are numbered and combos, all arriving with whatever the panchan of the day is. But almost every Korean who orders here picks the jajangmyeong, one of the most criminally underrated dishes in the county. It's a Korean Chinese classic: noodles slathered in a salty bean sauce spiked with caramel, then topped with your choice of veggies or meat. The meal is to Koreans what tacos are to gabachos: a once-foreign dish now assimilated as comfort food and best eaten in obscene amounts. Ching's bowl is not only big enough to fill with water for your radiator in a pinch, but the owners pile on the noodles so high the dish's swirling height resembles the summits of Van Gogh's Mountains at Saint-Remy With Dark Cottage. Despite its largesse, you'll try to eat all of it in one sitting, the saltiness and savoriness and loops of the jajangmyeong balanced by the small batch of danmuji (the crispy yellow daikon slices frequently offered at Korean restaurants) on the side. When you finally admit defeat, the Korean woman acting as Ching's cashier will hand you a plastic to-go container with a knowing glance—leftovers for days.
The only problem with Ching's? The jajangmyeong sauce stains worse than oil. Slurp carefully—but slurp.
Ching Chinese Express, 14551 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 838-8001.
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