In one sprawling Irvine shopping center, there are three Korean restaurants that serve soondubu jjigae, the Korean soft tofu soup that comes out in a boiling cauldron. All of them are worthy. All of them are good. But Dae Myoung Ok Korean Restaurant might just be its Methuselah. The walls are plain save for a few scuff marks. The servers are getting towards retirement age. But the customers are loyal. And when you go, you get a hot, tall glass of barley tea for free.
It's been here for as long as I can remember. Before the recent remodel of the center, its marquee simply said "Korean Restaurant", which should tell you it came from a time when there weren't as many Koreans in Irvine as there are now.
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But Dae Myoung Ok is a catch-all Korean restaurant. It's not just a soft tofu specialist like Koba a few doors down. It cooks the whole spectrum of Korean dishes. Still, you want the soondubu. Specifically, you want the soft tofu soup and bulgogi combo. It's $15.99 during dinner hours; a few bucks less at lunch. With it, you get enough food for two people. Just spring an extra buck for a second bowl of rice.
Included are eight side dishes called panchan, which are meals onto themselves. The selection is as consistent as it is impeccable. There will be a cooling mayo-dressed potato salad as well as a savory stewed potato dish with chiles. There will be shredded pickled daikon with seaweed and marinated bean sprouts. And of course, there will be kimchi.
The onions in the bulgogi are as sweet as candy, while the beef melts like ice cream. When it arrives, the tofu soup will gurgle and sputter, filled with soft soy curds, bits of meat, octopus, a lone piece of shrimp, and a raw egg already cracked into it. Asking for medium spiciness is advisable. Anything less wouldn't be as tasty or as Korean, or these days, as Irvine.