If you’re stuck in the Korean BBQ rut (which is actually not a bad rut to be stuck in), be thankful that you live in a county that has so many more dishes from the land that gave us kimchi and Gangnam Style.
Here are ten great Korean dishes to try in OC besides BBQ.
“Army Base” Stew at Tani
Budae jjigae—better known as “army base stew”—is a big cauldron of broth made brick-red with gochujang and red pepper flakes—typical ingredients in a Korean soup. But when you dig in, you start finding SPAM, hot dogs and ham instead of, well, anything that’s actually Korean. At Tani, it comes gurgling on a lit camp stove set to simmer. The fumes wafting up from the soup smells as though a New York hot dog cart is hiding a secret stash of kimchi. A square of uncooked ramen floats in the middle. You push it down into the liquid to soften. You eat the noodles first and then consume the rest of the soup with rice—lots of rice. Since the soup is too caustic and spicy to eat by itself, you need the rice as a buffer. But after you spoon ladle after ladle of the luncheon-meat brew into your bowls, you discover that what the people of Uijeongbu did more than a half-century ago: the sharp, sweet and spicy funk of the Korean broth is a perfect foil to the soft and salty SPAM.
Bossam at Crazy Chi Mac
You’re probably going to drink a lot of Hite here. And you’re probably going to eat a lot of fried chicken, too. The place is built on the fact that you will. But you also need to order the bossam, boiled and sliced pork belly that you wrap in perilla leaves or lettuce. It’s served on a big platter with two dipping sauces and sliced raw garlic cloves, cucumbers, carrots and jalapeños to stuff in between. And if you’re going to drink, you will eat a lot of it, since bossam is pretty much designed as anju, a dish meant to accompany alcohol consumption.
Corn Cheese at Zoomak Asian Bistro
Perhaps the most literal foodstuff on Earth, the Korean pub food called “corn cheese” consists of corn niblets straight out of a can mixed with grated mozzarella cheese and mayonnaise, the whole thing broiled on a fajita skillet and served at your table still fuming. It may sound revolting, but it’s a glorious dish. The union of sweet corn and salty cheese is nothing short of kismet. And whenever you scoop some out, the stretchy spider webs of mozzarella trailing your spoon as though it were a Chicago deep dish, you know that pours of ice-cold Hite and soju are forthcoming. Because when there’s corn cheese on the table, the fun times are just about to begin.
Fried Chicken at Krave Asian Fusion
You may have had many Korean-style fried chickens in the past—at BBQ Chicken, Love Letter, or even Crazy Chi-Mac in Buena Park. They’re all great. Now try the best at Krave Asian Fusion. The difference is the technique. Krave’s chicken has skin that isn’t just fully rendered of its fat by the double-fry method—the hallmark of all Korean-style fried chickens—it’s detached with an air gap in between meat and skin, forming a hollow, crunchy, candy shell you could rap with a spoon.
Gimbap at Yogi Yogi
Yogi Yogi’s array of gimbap, the Korean version of sushi rolls, pretty much requires you have at least one friend in tow before you order. The one with SPAM® comes in 14 pieces that any one person shouldn’t try to finish by himself. And there are gimbap samplers that have three or more kinds of rolls arranged in rows of seven. If it’s your first time—or even if it’s not—order one of these. There’s a sampler of gimbap stuffed with tuna salad, stir-fried kimchi and crispy fried anchovies. There’s another with garlic and bacon, teriyaki beef, and a spicier version of the fried-anchovies roll that’s actually hotter than you expect. No matter which sampler you take, you’re supposed to drag each roll through a squiggle of white sauce that may or may not be mayo.
Jjampong at Hong Kong Banjum
Jjampong, spicy seafood noodle soup in a red-chile hell broth, is Hong Kong Banjum’s specialty. No matter which Hong Kong Banjum you end up in, there will be a window through which you can stare at the wok cooks face-to-face. It’s here that you can witness them building your jjamppong from scratch, beginning with matchsticks of pork and squid tossed quickly to cook, then an avalanche of shredded cabbage and carrots, and finally, a transfer into a second wok, where it’s all seared with a chile-imbued red broth and combined with the noodles. And it’s this searing that’s the secret. It gives the bowls of jjamppong at Hong Kong Banjum an elusive flavor that only a superheated, well-seasoned wok can impart—an attribute as important to the meal as the chewiness of the wheat-based noodles and the sweat-inducing nature of the broth.
Kimchi Pork Stew at Seoulmate
As you take your first sip from the Styrofoam container, you realize there’s no food more perfect, more suited for frigid, wet weather than this—Seoulmate’s signature dish. It’s a recipe that owner Jason Kang simply calls “Mom’s kimchi pork stew.” You hunch over it as you eat, your face warmed by its vapors, your soul invigorated by the smell of garlic. In this lava-red broth float cubes of tofu, strips of pork belly and seemingly never-ending layers of kimchi. You moisten a mound of rice with it, the whole thing emitting curls of steam that shroud your entire head. And then, as the spice builds up in your mouth, you actually begin to sweat.
Korean-style Funyuns and Roasted Dried Squid at Past Memories
When you need soju and beer at Past Memories (and you will), you push a button to summon the wait staff. But even before you do that, they’ll supply free snacks to offset all the alcohol you are about to consume. The best free snack is the basket of Korean-style Funyuns that’s topped with freshly roasted dried squid. It’s the Korean bar equivalent to pretzels and Chex Mix. And surprise! These crunchy hoops and chewy squid jerky swatches pair really well with beer!
Scrambled Eggs at Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong
You come to Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong’s to do the KBBQ. But the grills here produce something much greater than those rippling hot pieces of pork belly: it makes the world’s best scrambled eggs. As the fat melts off the pork you sear, it cascades into the well of beaten egg, turning the mixture into an ethereal, rich, fluffy, creamy thing that makes your eyes roll to the back of your head. Best of all, you can ask for endless refills of it.
Steamed Buns at Myung In
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 find it’s still scorching. But it’s the dough you’ll marvel over. It’s moist but not damp. And 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.