OC's Korean community is as vibrant as any in the United States. Irvine has Sukhee Kang, the first Korean-American mayor of any U.S. city. Fullerton has Sunny Hills High and Troy, two schools whose academic fame reaches to South Korea, leading parents to send their teenagers alone to a foreign land just for the chance to excel in a phenomenon known as "parachute kids." Buena Park and La Palma have rambunctious Korean karaoke bars, while Anaheim can boast of Sarang, the Korean evangelical powerhouse that's the largest non-English-language church in the United States.
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Seemingly lost in this shuffle is OC's first and largest Korean enclave: Little Seoul in Garden Grove, which teems with businesses where Hangul marquees are as prominent as those in Roman script—but its luster seems a bit off, the signs not as shiny as before. Little Seoul still impresses, though, and nowhere is this more evident than at Morangak. It functioned for years as the fallback option if the nearby, more-famous Shik Do Rak was too busy, but it's finally fulfilling its potential. Sure, there's Korean barbecue, each table equipped with stoves and fans, the smoke from a hundred eaters before you never quite dissipating—but it's okay to stray from the cult of burnt flesh.
Take a dip into the bibimbap, rice and meat and veggies angrily sizzling on an earthenware plate, an immaculate over-easy egg waiting for you to puncture its yolk and baptize the plate. This is a dish you want to let sit, the better for each rice grain to crisp, for the mushrooms and spinach to slightly caramelize, for the meat to turn from red to black. And though the portion is massive, it sits well in the belly—filling, but not gut-busting. Combine each bite with the assorted panchan (ranging from kimchi to pickled bean sprouts, chile-sluiced cucumbers to salted, dried baby anchovies in a pecan sauce that miraculously, wonderfully works), and this is as complete a meal as anywhere in the world.
There is more: chilled buckets of pasty naengmyun (buckwheat noodles) reeking of garlic, fat seafood pancakes, grilled oysters in lettuce wraps . . . and did I mention every table gets a kettle of beef broth? Invigorating, milky, glorious beef broth meant for you to pour into a silver mini-canteen and slug back? Squirt some chili sauce into it, shake it a bit, and watch the chill of life melt away for a couple of hours. And then, dinner.
This column appeared in print as "The Seoul of OC’s Little Korea."