Peking Gourmet's Chachiang-Cha-Changes
The English spelling of the northern Chinese/Korean noodle called chachiang mein takes many forms. I've seen it as jajangmyun or even zha jiang mian, but you'll know you've ordered the right dish when you're served a jet-black sludge that resembles the ocean after the Exxon Valdez spill. At Garden Grove's Peking Gourmet, the chachiang mein actually starts as two dishes. The first bowl contains that tarry sauce, a thick, viscous substance made with fermented black-bean paste stir-fried with microscopic bits of pork and an excessive amount of translucent, diced onions. The second bowl holds nothing but pristine white noodles topped with julienned cucumber. Spoonful after chunky spoonful, you pour the inky stuff from the first bowl into the second, stirring up the tangled mass until every strand is stained and uniformly coated by that flavorful muck.
Your meal is ready when it begins to resemble spaghetti the citizens of Bizarro World would eat. Not only is the crude-oil color unlike anything you previously thought was edible, but it's also salty instead of sour, onion-y instead of garlicky, the whole thing a funky kind of wonderful. A "three flavor" option upgrades the basic model with sea cucumber, shrimp and squid, but you'll slurp it as you would any other pasta, inhaling the contents of the bowl in a continuous stream, your chopstick becoming a primitive shoveling device. You realize after you finish your first insanely gigantic serving that it'll take week to burn off all those carbohydrates, but you'll be back—oh, you'll be back.
The next time, you'll order the jjampong, which Peking Gourmet simply calls "hot noodle." It takes the same chewy, wheat-based strands and submerges them in a broth as bright red as molten steel—and just as dangerous. Tuck a napkin into your shirt collar before starting or you'll risk looking as though you've been hit with arterial splatter. Though it's a soup, not a sauce, this crimson liquid is prepared just as the chachiang mein, beginning in a blazing wok in which leeks, cabbage, carrots, whole chile pods, squid and shell-on shrimp are seared in a stir-fry before being quenched by ladles of seafood broth. Fistfuls of Korean chili powder then tint everything a deep red, resulting in a broth equal parts smoky, assertively spicy and pungent of garlic—and immensely thrilling to sip.
Peking Gourmet is old-school old school, opening in 1985 as a Chinese restaurant, then turning into a Korean-style Chinese restaurant once Garden Grove's Little Seoul District began to emerge. And since that time, its regulars know the only reason you should deviate from these two noodle dishes is to order the fried shrimp with hot garlic sauce. They also know that doing so requires at least three other people to help with the portion size, since it's a wedding-banquet dish of shrimp capable of feeding a table of 10. But time is of the essence. Each morsel is encased in thick batter, raucously crunchy for a few minutes, but getting progressively soggier every second it sits in its sharp, chili-flecked, cornstarch-thickened gravy. If you can't finish it in one sitting, don't bother taking it home—it'll be mush before you leave the parking lot.
Should you decide to explore the rest of the menu, try the sweet-and-sour beef, a too-chewy-but-still-satisfying Korean-style rendition that has deep-fried battered nubs of steak tossed in a gloopy brown sauce that carries the same tang of the usual DayGlo orange stuff you're used to. Expect everything else to be a carbon copy of chop suey from every Cantonese staple your grandparents enjoyed in their youth. Among the moo-shu-this and kung-pao-that, there's a silky broccoli beef, sizzling rice soup and a pupu plate featuring a damp char siu-style pork rib that needed to be caramelized a bit more.
If you're Asian, the hostess will greet you in Korean, and then switch to Mandarin if she doesn't get a response. And when you sit down, there will be a saucer of raw onion petals you're supposed to dip in black-bean paste as though they are chips and some kimchi to nibble on in between bites. The latter will be one of the few hints that Peking is actually Garden Grove's preeminent Korean-Chinese restaurant . . . well, except for all the Korean people around you.
This review appeared in print as "Chachiang-Cha-Changes: Peking Gourmet's Korean-style Chinese noodle dishes remain old-school Little Seoul."
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