Garden Grove has too many of my favorites. It took me a few days to chop my first draft of this list down to the ten you see below. If you hadn't noticed, Garden Grove is that Venn diagram sweet spot where O.C.'s own Korean District overlaps with Little Saigon.
What's left are the 10 restaurants and eateries that make Garden Grove one of the best eating towns in our county…or the state, even.
Do you agree? Disagree? Have your own 10? Participate in the discussion and put in a comment, won't you?
The nem noung rolls that made Brodard famous are still the ones against which all others are measured. The protein at the fulcrum is a ruddy concoction which isn't quite a sausage and not really a meatball, but a harmonious fusion of the two. A slender piece of it is grilled then wrapped tautly inside transculent rice paper with more vegetables than you probably had all week. And don't forget that secret dunking sauce–a substance whose recipe is better-guarded than nuclear launch codes. But you can still see them make the rolls on their assembly line; and then munch in their newly remodeled dining room. Brodard doesn't look like a dolled-up high school gymnasium as it used to, but it's still behind a 99-Cent-Only store.
You can't do much better at an all-you-can-eat than Cham Sut Gol. It remains one of the most popular and consistent Korean BBQ's in Garden Grove's Korean District. Their supply of panchan is good enough to fill up on, constituting a hearty meal on its own if you eat it with rice. It includes one of the most delicious potato salads found on Earth. But it's the bulgogi, the kalbi, and the spicy pork you're after. You don't even have to stand up to get more meat; they bring it to you, along with a steamed egg custard pot that, yes, functions as filler. But you should eat anyway. It's deliciously airy and worthy of the any stomach left unclaimed by all the animal flesh you'll sear and eat.
Joe's sits in a lonely hut on its own tiny lot, along a dark stretch of road just outside the border of Disneyland's tourist enclave. In the night, the luminous stand looks like something straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, a refuge for the desolate, bathed in light. Its specialty is authentic Philly-style water ice in permutations too numerous to recount but include those named Razzamatazz and Bananadana. Made in the store with fruit and just the right dosage of sugar and food coloring, the best way to consume it is as a Joe-Latti. A waxed-paper cup is filled by teenage employees with the Italian ice of your choosing, then topped with a dollop of a rich, soft-serve vanilla ice cream of an ultra-dense, calorically concentrated East Coast character.
The best part about Go Goo Ryeo is that it's a do-it-yourself Korean barbecue joint where everything is done for you. But to experience the full splendor of the service, come on a Friday, or better yet, a weekday, during which the ratio of restaurant staff to diners will be stacked in your favor. They'll tend to the meats sizzling on your tabletop grill, turn over every piece of beef to check if it's properly seared, and snip the bacon into bite-sized swatches with scissors. Then they'll transfer every freshly grilled morsel to your plate one-by-one and answer in limited English how to eat it. There's a supply of mouthwash in the restroom in case you have some place to go afterward.
At first glance, Myung In's Korean rendition of the steamed bun would seem much like others you've seen at dim sum. It's only when you notice the man making them right behind the cash register of this food-court stall that you realize these will be something special. Labor-intensive as all hell and carefully coddled, what's brought out to you will be so fresh they can't be handled for the better part of two minutes. When you can't wait any longer, you bite into one and it scalds you. But it's the dough you'll marvel over: Moist but not damp, there's a lightness to it, an airy puffiness akin to a cloud. This is as perfect a texture as you've ever had–proof that when it comes to bread, whether oven-baked or steamed, freshness makes all the difference.
The English spelling of the Northern Chinese/Korean noodle called chachiang mein takes many forms. It can be referred to 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 looks like Alaska after the Exxon Valdez. 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 diced onions now turned translucent. The second bowl holds nothing but pristine white noodle topped with julienned cucumber. Spoonful after chunky spoonful, you pour in the inky stuff from the first bowl to the second, stirring up the tangled mass until every strand is stained black and uniformly coated in that flavorful muck.
Even after Thai Nakorn was forced out of its original Buena Park location, then suffered a devastating fire when it moved to Garden Grove, the venerable restaurant topped our Best Of lists again and again. There are two Thai Nakorns now–both thriving and producing the food we've always used as the benchmark at which to measure the worthiness of other Thai restaurants. It doesn't matter which one you go to, either Garden Grove or Stanton; the two kitchens are more or less in sync, as though the chefs were linked telepathically to produce the same exacting dishes. Close your eyes, put your finger anywhere on the menu, and wherever it lands, the plate will be astounding. The list of Issan dishes should be where you spend most of your time, but even the familiar staples are excellent: the sticky-sweet mee krob tickles the nostrils with orange zest; the stir-fry of watercress harbors garlic and chiles; the larb pierces with ginger. And if you've ever doubted that food can soothe the soul, try the chicken curry. Paired with rice, it's a natural antidepressant. All hail Thai Nakorn, the twin kings of OC Thai food!
Start with a Belgian draft beer poured into a curvy chalice, or try one of more than a dozen Trappist brews, artisan beer produced by a select few monasteries, largely in Belgium. If you're keen on reliving your frat days and are capable of chugging a 70-ounce schooner, The Globe also offers a so-called Chimay Challenge; portraits of the brave souls who've accomplished the feat hang on a wall of fame. Whatever ale or lager you choose, the thing to start with here are the Hoppas, the Globe's version of tapas. The rillettes are excellent, small terrines of pork and duck meat cooked into shreds and left to chill until the fat forms a waxy seal you scrape off the top before spreading the pink, nearly melting meat paste on slices of French bread as you would pâté.
One year, for one of our Best Of issues, we tongue-in-cheekily dubbed the restaurant that preceded The Red Pot as "The Best Restaurant That Will Close Soon." Despite our attempt at a reverse-jinx, Four Seasons Hot Pot still shuttered. But as we mourn its loss, we celebrate the birth of its successor. The Red Pot serves essentially the same food in exactly the same spacious, window-bordered room, but it couldn't be more different. Instead of the nearly deaf owner, there are attentive, youthful faces who are as fluent in English as they are in customer service–a jarring but not unwelcome thing for those used to being ignored in Little Saigon. The pricing structure has also changed for the better. The old à la carte system has been jettisoned in favor of a $19.99 all-you-can-eat model. This, above all, has freed the itinerant explorer to discover things to swish beyond just chicken, beef and lamb. Pork-blood cubes, tripe, intestines, even tendon, can now be ordered wallet-risk-free. If you'll allow it, we'll now make another prediction: The Red Pot shall be "The Restaurant That Will Last Awhile."
Ask people from Jakarta what food they miss from home, and it's likely they'll say bakmi ayam, a simple noodle dish served by street hawkers and the formidable chain restaurant called Bakmi Gadja Mada. The noodles are boiled, then tossed with a flavored oil in a bowl to coat every strand. Then in goes toppings of boiled greens and spoonfuls of simmered cubed chicken and mushroom, with a soup served on the side. You might say it's a deconstruction, except it predates the Ferran Adriàs and Wylie Dufresnes of the world. And when OC's few Indonesians crave it, they go to Warung Pojok. Since opening a few years back, the Garden Grove restaurant's maturity has allowed it to make the dish even better than it used to be. It's now served in an actual bowl, not Styrofoam, and the noodles taste even richer. Though Warung Pojok is no longer the only Indonesian eatery in OC, it is still the place to go for this dish, no matter whether you hail from Jakarta or Semarang, or think Java is just another word for coffee.