This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Korean sushi master. Photo by Gustavo Arellano

Like most ethnic grocery stores, the Korean-centric HK Market functions more like a Costco, a capitalist wonderland where jewelry stands abut gumball machines and towers of bags swelling with rice are visible from the counter where a cute girl sells designer purses. But among aisles and aisles of produce, the real attraction for hunters of obscure cuisine is the food stands. At one of them, two ladies industriously roll out Korean sushi; it's wrapped in seaweed and rice like its Japanese cousins, but fattened with egg or a tofu cube. Toward the back, between the refrigerated kim chi and noodles, another lady cuts up naengmyun, the cold-but-spicy buckwheat noodles that will chill you during the hottest days of the coming summer. The butcher's counter displays live fish and bulgogi and kalbi: buy them by the pound, fire up your grill and cook. There's even a full-fledged bakery, where you can try cakes bloated with red bean, one of the world's underappreciated sweets.

It's quite the experience to stroll down HK's aisles, bowl and chopsticks in hand, as you decide whether to splurge on school supplies or canned tuna. A request to HK management, though: open a spot where customers can sample HK's many kim chis, the Korean side dish of pickled cabbage that the store stocks in flavors ranging from the nearly sweet and the face-puckering sour to something spicier than Eva Longoria.

HK Market's food court offers three separate restaurants. Ching carries such lunchtime Chinese faves as beef broccoli and kung pao chicken, but also rarities—noodles in a thick black bean sauce or a fiery, pungent seafood soup heavy on the clams, baby octopus and shrimp. Niko Express Sushi offers straight-ahead Japanese—think sushi, tempura and noodles. Both restaurants cater to a Korean crowd—hence the menus in English and Hangul—and thus feature dishes spicier and sharper than the usual Korean fare.

Not mitigating their flavors at all, on the other hand, is the remarkable Corea BBQ. Corea offers a wider array of platters than most Korean dives: boiling soon tofu stews bubbling with meats; sizzling barbecue platters sitting on top of caramelized onions; chilled or hot long noodles pungent with fish sauce; and a long array of soups, ranging from ox bone (as white as a gabacho's backside) to about five different fishes—even roe soup, a salty concoction only for the hardiest of palates. My favorite meal at Corea is the decidedly un-Korean omelet rice—an omelet stuffed with steamed rice, diced cucumber, carrots and Spam, and doused with ketchup; a bowl of kim chi and a sweet root accompanies the meal. Judging by all the Koreans scarfing down lunches of omelet rice, no one cares that it's better suited to Norm's, and I mean that in the best way: it's filling, cheap, delicious grub.

HK MARKET, 14551 RED HILL AVE., TUSTIN, (714) 731-6801; HK FOOD COURT INCLUDES CHING, (714) 838-5552; NIKO, (714) 838-8284; COREA BBQ, (714) 508-0024.

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