To tourists, if Anaheim is New York, Buena Park is Chicago: Orange County's second city, the one they go to after they've exhausted all that Disney has to offer. But to locals, Buena Park is more than just the territory of Knott's and knights; it's also the home of a burgeoning Korean population and thus, excellent food.
Still, Knott's and Medieval Times did make this list of your humble food scribe's 10 essential Buena Park eateries.
What's yours? Share them in the comments so that any tourists who read this can make the most of their visit, won't you?
Aji Limon might be the first restaurant in the county to completely embrace chifa cuisine (Chinese-Peruvian dishes) as its specialty. Its roster is dotted with more than a few Chinese dishes of the kind you might find on Capón Street, Lima's Chinatown. But its saltado is one against which to measure all others, the best amalgamation of the Chinese and the Latin as only the hot crucible of a wok can forge–neither too soupy nor too greasy and every bit the diplomatic ambassador of chifa to OC as the restaurant is its temple.
Athenian #3 didn't invent the breakfast burrito, but it produces what is perhaps the best breakfast burrito in Southern California. There are nine different preparations, the folds of the tortilla holding back everything from chorizo to Polish sausage to bacon to ham to even chili. Your chosen meat is then joined with fluffy egg, crispy hash brown, gobs of cheese, all tucked into a perfectly gridled tortilla that feels like a brick in your hand but heaven in your mouth.
The first question you will ask yourself passing by this branch of Cocohodo is "What the heck is a Cocohodo?" The second question you will ask yourself when you find out they sell walnut pastries is "What the heck is a walnut pastry?" Soon you find out that Cocohodo is Korean purveyor of hodo gwaja, the walnut pastry in question. Hodo gwaja is, in fact, uncannily shaped like a walnut; but for all intents, it's just a bite-sized version of a Japanese taiyaki with a walnut morsel embedded in the azuki paste filling. Since it's as big as a donut hole, you can fit one in your mouth. Doing this, however, is very stupid idea. When a hodo gwaja is just freshly made, formed in a walnut-shaped waffle press, the azuki will be a scalding, sticky equivalent of red hot lava. Wrapped up in tissue paper and boxed up like precious truffles, you wouldn't think they'd be such a first-degree burn hazard, but be warned! Eat them. Enjoy them. But bite into them carefully, blowing to cool it off.
Fatburgers used to be everywhere, but then the tide ebbed and most outlets started closing, leaving most of the county bereft in what I consider one of the best and underrated fast food burgers around. Behind the Orange Curtain, this Buena Park location and one in Aliso Viejo remain. The burgers here are fatty, luscious, grease bombs, dripping in shiny coat of melted American cheese. And the place is the kind of joint that harkens back to a time when a burger was good wholesome food for good wholesome people. Red, shiny soda fountain bar stools, chrome accents, and a jukebox pleasantly distract from the fact that the word "fat" is actually in their name. My favorite part about Fatburger is the option of putting a whole fried egg in their sandwiches, which amps up the cholesterol to tasty levels, complementing the ground beef patty and enhancing the beefiness in a way cheese never could. The onion rings are also excellent.
If Han Yang served nothing but galbi tang, it would still be enough reason for you to wait in line at this former A&W Drive-In. Though the meat has been coddled under a long, slow simmer to loosen its grip with just a gentle nudge of your chopsticks, all Han Yang diners take it upon themselves to pick up the ribs and fulfill their basest, primal caveman instincts of tearing off sopping mouthfuls of it with their teeth. The soup will, at first, appear to be unremarkable; save for green onions, softened cloves of garlic, a long rectangle of thinly sliced omelet, vermicelli noodles and dots of red jujubes, it's crystal-clear and plain-looking. But a taste will reveal it to be a nectar sweet, salty and savory–a broth that can only be produced someone with saintly patience. It's simply breathtaking. To just call it a great Korean soup would be unfair–this is just great soup.
Let's be clear, we're talking about Knott's Chicken-to-Go, not the actual Chicken Dinner restaurant at Knott's. Mrs. Knott's Chicken-to-Go counter is located mere feet from the restaurant, a tourist trap where people will stand for hours to get a seat. It remains puzzling why anyone bothers with the restaurant when you can conceivably be licking your fingers and rubbing your tummies full from a meal well-eaten while the rest of the schmucks are still waiting in line. People! It's the same chicken! And on top of that, it's less expensive at the Chicken-to-Go counter. A dinner bucket at around $20 can easily feed four people, with nine pieces of hen, two tubs of mashed potatoes, a tub of gravy, an equally tall tub of a side of our choice, plus more biscuits (of the tender and fluffy variety) with boysenberry preserves (a fruit that was popularized by Walter Knott, donchaknow) than you'll know what to do with. You'll even get paper plates and utensils so you can gulp it all down at a nearby picnic table.
Speaking of tourist traps: yes, this is one. But call me crazy, I actually love the food. These days, it's easy to get cynical about it. It has been, and probably always will be, a tourist trap–a side trip for the Disneyland-bound out-of-towner who happens to be from a metropolitan area that doesn't already have a Medieval Times in it. The bill of fare hasn't changed much. Soup, a thin tomatoey thing with bits of veggies cut down to grain-size, is poured from a jug into a metal bowl which will sap the heat from the liquid and be too hot to handle for the better part of 10 minutes. Next comes a butter-soaked garlic bread, and then the roasted chicken (something they called a "buzzard"), which, these days is larger and tastier than I remember, served rocket hot. It's followed by a teensy piece of tender pork rib, half of a skin-on baked potato basted with the same sauce as the ribs, and a warm apple turnover for dessert. The drink is always Pepsi, poured into our mugs from jugs similar to the ones they used for the soup, and already flat. But all are completely enjoyable as you watch actors/stuntmen frolic on a dirt patch for a few hours, yelling out pseudo-Shakespearean prose with words like "doth" and "sire" and then don shiny armor to clang swords and charge towards each other atop galloping horses with bolsa wood lances that splinter into a million pieces. The best time to go to Medieval Times is during OC Restaurant Week where you can get in for half price, which is exactly the right price for the food–cuisine that you eat sans cutlery while wearing a colored paper crown on your noggin.
There are dozens of Portillo's in the Chicago area, but only two in California. And for transplants now living in OC, Buena Park is closer than Moreno Valley, and where this outlet of the Windy City chain has established itself since 2005 as the place to eat two out of the three iconic Chicago foodstuffs: the Chicago dog with "everything" (mustard, neon green relish, onions, sliced tomatoes, pickle and sport peppers) on a steamed poppy seed bun; and the Italian beef sandwich. About the only thing a homesick Cubs fans can't get at Portillo's is deep dish pizza.
The all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ at Surah is an endeavor that demands steely commitment, stretchy pants, and at least two other people to go with you. The last part is a real requirement. Though couples are welcome to try it the rest of the week, the restaurant won't allow any fewer than three people per party to do it if it's a Saturday. You need the support. Unlike regular buffets where it's everyone for themselves, this meal requires a team effort. Pluck the gal bi off the griddle still sizzling, the fat rippling from the heat as you eat, the morsels bursting juice in your mouths. Then nibble on panchan, traditional side dishes essential to the Korean meal. Surah puts out no less than a dozen varieties, each small saucer capable of becoming a meal onto itself if a bowl of rice were supplied. There will be sardines and boiled daikon covered in a throat-constricting adobe red chile paste. There will be a canary yellow square of something potato, a sort of a cross between a chilled potato salad and a casserole. Then scrape squiggly meat off the tiny marinated clams on the half-shell and slurp some cooling cubes of gelatin marinated in soy sauce and scallions before eating more meat, and more meat, and more meat.
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. 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.