Pork Is a Nice, Sweet Meat
And you can cook your own on the screaming-hot shield-shaped thingies at Wako Honey Pig
Korean restaurants have a monopoly on two things: creative names and the cook-your-own-meat barbecue joint.
Wako Honey Pig? Yeah, it has both. The greatest local moniker since Garden Grove’s Chicken & Pizza Love Letter—and it’s also a Korean barbecue. On the latter front, Wako Honey Pig is further proof that, as with snowflakes, no two Korean barbecues are alike. The differences begin with the cooking surface. Garden Grove’s Go Goo Ryeo has jet-powered suction vents built into its hot plates. Cham Sut Gol uses smoldering charcoal to fuel its grills. Wako Honey Pig’s griddles look like shields forged for the warriors of Sparta. (Tonight, we dine . . . oh, never mind.)
These cast-iron domes dominate every table, making the dining room seem like a geisha house was taken over by a medieval armory. On the summit of the domes are nipple-like protrusions, grip handles by which a guy with welding gloves will lift one out to replace it with a clean vessel as the next set of customers arrives.
Even before you order, the eating ritual begins. A server dumps a load of scissor-cut kimchi and marinated bean sprouts onto the surface, spreading it out to warm on the hemisphere’s periphery. The purpose of the veggies is threefold: side dish, grease sponge and a resting platform for any cooked pieces of meat.
The heat of the griddle is most intense on the bald spot at the top. This is where you’ll sizzle all manner of flesh, but mostly pork belly. There are no fewer than five different kinds to choose from, ranging in price from $16.99 to $19.99. The cheapest comes in a metal dish, but the “special pork belly” arrives on a wooden pedestal and appears to have been excised from a particularly lethargic hog—it’s frosted with thick, frilly, white fat.
All render down to become what you’ll recognize as bacon, meant to be plucked off when it’s golden-brown and crispy, wrapped in a square of rice noodle called duk bo sam, and swished in a slurry of salted sesame oil before consumption. The difference between pork bellies will be nuanced and almost imperceptible unless you’re a bacon connoisseur—in which case you are probably reading this review while plugged into an IV following your bypass surgery.
Beef also exists in as many heart-challenging permutations. Bulgogi is simply called “beef slice,” preseasoned and flecked with onions. The non-marinated “beef thin slice” is shaved to the thinness of tissue and cooks the moment it touches the searing iron. Marry it with a few strands of scallion salad for an herb-y kick.
As with all Korean barbecues, Wako Honey Pig has an obligatory dish that requires no cooking effort from you. But don’t waste your appetite on it. Though they’ll be the spiciest set of pork ribs you’ll ever gnaw, they’re also the chewiest. Better to save room for the freebies, like the knish-like potato pancakes, snipped to squares and placed on top of your warming kimchi to heat. On busy nights, octopus is offered in a wiggling mass plopped onto the hottest part of your griddle, looking like a messy mound of intestines—very tasty intestines.
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The best complimentary dish is the fried rice, Wako Honey Pig’s calling card. Your server will begin by tossing the red-tinged rice in a bowl with lettuce, nori and a few handfuls of kimchi taken from your dome. A pat of butter greases the hot metal before the rice is spread out until it gets that coveted toasted, crispy crust on the bottom.
At the point where your stomach is gorged on hog fat and your mouth is scorched from the griddle-hot foods, Wako Honey Pig has just the dish to jolt them back to life. Deceptively called “kimchi noodle,” it dances the line between icy dessert and noodle soup.
You’ll know what I mean when you see it—and you’ll think the kitchen made a horrible mistake. Is that a bowl of shaved ice? Yes, it is. But buried beneath the cherry-Icee-looking mound are the noodles you ordered. And it is wonderful. Crazy, but wonderful. The slush slurps like tomato gazpacho, and the noodles—thin strands as fine as angel hair—are thoroughly chilled and bracing. With it comes proof that Koreans also hold the monopoly on brain freeze while eating noodles.
Wako Honey Pig at 7212 Orangethorpe Ave., Ste. 1, Buena Park, (714) 739-4504. Call for hours. Dinner for two, $30-$50, food only. Beer, wine and soju.