I admit it: I'm late in discovering Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong. Friends have been singing the praises of the Buena Park branch of the popular K-Town joint for more than a few months. But I wasn't listening. "How could it be much different or better than Surah across the street?" I thought. In the meantime, Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong announced it's opening a branch in a shuttered Irvine Denny's, and then the Buena Park location won Best Korean Restaurant in our recent Best Of Issue.
That was when I started Googling and found out the "Kang Ho-Dong" part is actually the name of a South Korean wrestling champion turned comedian and popular TV host, which I guess makes him the equivalent of the Rock, Ricky Gervais and Ryan Seacrest in one jolly package. Kang Ho-Dong also happens to be a restaurant mogul with more than a dozen of these Korean barbecues in his homeland and a growing roster in the States.
I had no idea of its popularity when I finally asked my friends to meet me there at 7 on a Saturday night. After waiting an hour outside with the crowd, they told me they usually go earlier to avoid the crush of people. Like, 4 p.m.
When we were finally paged, we were greeted by a life-sized cardboard cutout of a grinning Kang Ho-Dong at the door. This, I thought, was nothing like Surah. First, it's not an all-you-can-eat joint. Second, the customers skewed at least 10 years younger. No one seemed to mind the blaring thump-thump-thump of the K-pop in the background. And then there's the openness of the room itself. Unlike Surah, which employs dividers, we were close enough to the next table to pluck off a piece of meat and clink glasses for a toast. Each station was also no bigger than a round picnic table, with a stove in the middle and a retractable ventilation duct that hung from the ceiling. Despite it, a haze settled in the room as though it were a San Francisco morning.
Before long, the waiter ignited our grill with a whoosh, installed a convex metal cooktop and proceeded to arrange the first course of pork jowls from our set meal on it to sear. I noticed the griddle was surrounded by a moat of beaten egg. I realized immediately this was a work of pure genius: As the fat melted off the pork, it cascaded into the well, turning the mixture into the world's best scrambled eggs. On the other side, in another compartment, shredded cheese and corn kernels melded into the Korean bar staple of corn cheese. We would gorge on multiple refills of egg and corn cheese that night, but the pork was savored.
Snipped with scissors by our server into smaller chunks, the pork jowls gushed juice amid their tender chew. The slabs of pork belly that came after were flawless, sliced up after they rendered down to become rippling morsels of fat I dunked into a saucer of sesame oil and salt. After that, the thinly sliced version of the pork belly arrived in frozen white curls, but it never touched our griddle. It was instead whisked to the kitchen to be stir-fried and gilded with a spicy glaze, then returned to our table with tufts of shredded scallions on the side.
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SHOW ME HOW
Perhaps the best part about eating pork at Baekjeong was that none of it felt greasy. On the palate, every premium piece of hog finished as cleanly as sashimi. Besides the instructions to mix wasabi into the dipping bowls of a tangy secret house sauce to achieve "MAXIMUM" flavor, nothing the restaurant served distracted from the meat's divine provenance. There were none of those rice noodle mats other Korean barbecue joints often use as filler and very few panchan. We encountered some kimchi, a tiny pajeon pancake, cold tofu and a sugary glazed sweet potato, but that was it. In fact, the only side items that mattered were the two salads we nibbled in between bites of meat for contrast and palate cleansing. Our dinner was instead laser-focused on the best parts of the pig, as well as how many beer and soju bombs we could construct in glasses marked as a graduated cylinder so as to customize our level of drunkenness.
After we finished the pork, we closed our meal as all Baekjeong's Korean customers do: with the lunchbox rice. Our server presented it to us in a tin container, showing off the contents of rice, a fried egg, various veggies and some gochujang. He quickly sealed it with a lid, then shook the thing as though he were channeling Tom Cruise in Cocktail. If the wonders of pork don't convince you that Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong is truly OC's best Korean restaurant, the showmanship in making this impromptu bibimbap will.
Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong, 5171 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 739-9678. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Dinner for two, $40-$60, food only. Beer and soju.