Hwang Hae Do BBQ
Photo by Matt OttoThe pupils of the waitress expanded even as her eyebrows furrowed. Her neck cocked at a 45-degree angle. Her lips pursed. She didn't have to say anything—we got that she was shocked at our lunch choice—but she nevertheless did: "Really?!"
The place: Hwang Hae Do BBQ in Garden Grove's Little Seoul District. The order: bibimnaengmyun, translated in the menu as "spicy cold noodles." Our party of three had already picked other hellish entrées: a kim chi soft tofu stew that would eventually unlock the sinuses of a congested co-worker and a boiling cauldron of dumpling soup. But it was the spicy cold noodle request that flummoxed our waitress.
"Really?!" she marveled again. "It's really spicy but cold, you know. Are you used to the taste?" After I assured her that, yes, I've had this before and I'm not scared of the spice because I'm Mexican and Mexicans drink salsa in the crib, she walked into the kitchen. She turned around one final time and smirked.
Hwang Hae Do is the Orange County outpost of an Artesia restaurant famed for its mandoo—delicate dumplings native to North Korea that are a bit bigger than the five knuckles of your hand bunched together and bloated with herbed ground beef and snappy zucchini bits. These dumplings are so beloved amongst local Koreans that Hwang Hae Do sells them in packs—many diners grab a pack of mandoos from an icebox before leaving. But Hwang Hae Do also prepares other Korean favorites: chicken, pork or beef shavings (bulgogi) doused in soy sauce and brought out on a skillet with almost-caramelized onions; eggy seafood pancakes engorged with grilled octopus, buttery clams and some viciously pickled house kim chi; noodles of various temperatures, consistencies and strewn vegetables. All meals come with panchan, the array of side dishes that makes Korean cuisine the culinary equivalent of craps; your rolls here can consist of anything from sweet black beans to a soy sauce-soaked tofu cube to chilled, pungent seaweed to the world's perfect potato salad.
On the walls of Hwang Hae Do are specials—the language is Korean, but pictures, exclamation points and prices deconstruct the deals into easy-to-decipher rebuses. And that's how I stumbled upon the $4.99 bibimnaengmyun-and-mandoo lunch special: a veritable bucket of the noodles along with three dumplings. You know that terrible cliché, "When hell freezes over"? The noodles are like that: chilled buckwheat noodles sluiced with hot sauce and wading in a strong, beefy broth. I mixed in a hard-boiled egg to give the noodle mass a sulfurous, hearty tang.
The waitress passed by a couple of minutes later. I was whimpering. She didn't have to say anything—we got that she was beaming in victory—but she nevertheless did: "More water?"
HWANG HAE DO BBQ, 9448 GARDEN GROVE BLVD., GARDEN GROVE, (714) 590-1588.
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