I've been reading the Chow Tour: Mongol Rally as a bunch of linguistically-challenged 25-year-olds drive across central Asia, while one of them comments on the road food they find there. One of the continuing threads of that particular blog is that they end up doing a lot of pantomime, take what they get, and hope it's not expensive.
You don't need to go to Kyrgyzstan to experience this -- you can just go to Garden Grove. While most Chowhounds know of Garden Grove as one of the anchor cities of Orange County's Little Saigon, with its attendant pho shops and banh mi-erias, not so many people know that it's one of Orange County's two poles of Korean culture (the other being Buena Park).
Garden Grove's "Korean District" lies west of the city's downtown, mostly on Garden Grove Boulevard between Brookhurst and Magnolia Sts. Pass the Costco, pass the soi-dit "Historical Main St." and head west, noticing the complete absence of Korean characters. Cross Brookhurst St. and all of a sudden you're in Korea... a riot of Hangul, and some very appetizing smells. I parked in Galway Street and decided to walk around, as I had time before meeting a friend.
The Korean District is, technically, walkable -- it's about a mile from Brookhurst to Magnolia, and there are sidewalks on both sides most of the way -- but it's not exactly a pedestrian-friendly place. Everything is in plazas set quite far back from the main road, and crossing GG Blvd. is a challenge (it's actually the same width as the 5 in Norwalk, but traffic goes rather faster on GG Blvd. than on that part of the 5).
Some things you should probably know and do:
1. Learn to read Korean. It's a letter-based system, though the letters, at two, three or sometimes four to a "character", are not arranged like you would expect. It is not hard to learn, and it will pay off in spades. You see, Koreans don't eat in restaurants the way other people do. A Korean restaurant specialises in one thing -- barbecue, noodles, cold crab, dumplings, etc. -- and you choose what you want to eat and then where to get it. The problem is that the English description for nearly every restaurant is "Korean Restaurant" or "Korean Cuisine", which doesn't help you in the slightest. So if you can learn to read Hangul, however long it takes you to parse out the words, you will do much better.
2. All the restaurants I went into had the host desk at the back. You will have to walk through the restaurant to enquire about a table or seeing a menu.
3. Korean restaurants have a wonderful invention that I wish the rest of the world would adopt, the "chogiyo" button, also known as the "get over here" button. If you want something, press the button and your waiter will be paged. Always try to catch someone's attention ("chogiyo" is the equivalent of a throat-clearing in the restaurant, used to flag someone down) before using the button, but don't be afraid to use the button if you feel ignored.
4. Don't count on great translations. Some restaurants have them and some don't -- and the Koreans in Garden Grove seem much more resistant to having their culture and food diluted for American tastes than other Asian cultures in the area (yes, 3-6-9 Shanghai, I'm looking at you), meaning that though they may ask you if you like things spicy, if you say "yes", you're going to get SPICY, and not "slightly warm for American palates".
And so I wandered in and out, poking my head into restaurants and asking to see menus. None of the restaurants, with the exception of Cham Sut Gol (a coal-fired barbecue restaurant at 9252-10 GG Blvd), had any kind of wait. For a Friday night, it sure seemed pretty dead. Part of the problem is the huge number of restaurants.
Cham Soot Gol smelled fantastic -- like Soot Bull Jeep in Koreatown, with coal-fired barbecue.
Ham-hung (10031 GG Blvd.) is a place specialising in the North Korean dish of arrowroot noodles in ice-cold beef broth, called naengmyon. They have two kinds, Pyongyang and Hamhung style.
Kae Sung (8891 GG Blvd.) was an odd place -- older Korean men drinking soju and eating out of huge stone pots. The major menu items were black goat stew and "President Johnson's casserole". I have no idea what it was -- the Hangul said "President Johnson's stew". Both stews were $27 but they were in enormous pots.
The epitome of the "you aren't getting the whole picture in English" phenomenon was at Seoul Soondae (8757 GG Blvd), which says "Korean Restaurant" on the door. It specialises in soondae, the Korean version of black pudding -- noodles, vegetables and pig's blood stuffed into casings, eaten with seasoned salt.
There's a branch of BCD Tofu House, but if you want soondubu, go to Kaju or the OC branch of Beverly Soon Tofu instead.
There was a restaurant called "Past Memories", which is an odd name for a restaurant, but I didn't go in as I was late for dinner. The problem was, my friend wasn't at the designated meeting spot. I called him, and no answer... and it was late, and I was starving hungry, so I figured I'd go have a quick plate of mandoo (dumplings) at Anna's Mondu (9972 GG Blvd.).
I walked in, and there was nobody there. "Annyeong haseyo!" I called out -- hello -- and a woman "of a certain age" came running out, bowed, and started talking at top speed in Korean. The problem is, I don't speak Korean very well at all, and I've no sense of the language. Neither she nor her husband spoke English. After some pantomime -- I was the only one in the shop -- I established that I wanted to sit down. Water was brought, and more Korean talk that I didn't understand. The menu is written up on the wall, though, and I can read and pronounce Korean, so I said, "Combo mandu hana chuseyo." (I'll have a mixed mandoo plate.)
There's no decor in this place. It is the original hole in the wall -- I get the feeling that it exists mostly to sell their dumplings to go (frozen -- this does not really affect the quality), but that they have a few tables so you can order your mandoo cooked if you so choose.
Another thing about Korean restaurants is the use of metal -- bowls will be metal, chopsticks may be metal, and the tray on which my food came was metal -- in fact, it was a jelly-roll pan, and on it was kimchi, sweet pickled radish, and hot pickled radish, along with a plate of 6 fried mandoo.
"Did I screw up the order? Did she mishear?" I wondered, but I was so hungry I just tucked in. You make your own sauce from the condiments on the table -- thick soy sauce, rice vinegar, black pepper and hot pepper powder. The fried mandoo were fantastic. I gobbled them up and was looking on my Blackberry for how to say "Bill, please" in Korean (it's "kyesanso chuseyo", if you're wondering) when an enormous steamer basket appeared, with 5 steamed mandoo and 5 steamed... well... mandoo, but they looked like bao.
The steamed mandoo, which is what I was after in the first place, were actually the least interesting of the three, but they were still very tasty. The bao-looking mandoo, though, were wheat flour and something else (probably buckwheat), with a much more vegetable-laden interior. They were slightly bitter, which was a welcome surprise from the potsticker-type mandoo I'd been eating... I need to go back and write down the Hangul for these (it's obvious, because "wang mandoo" are fried, "mul mandoo" are steamed, and then there's whatever the third kind is, all in their own sections on the menu).
I paid -- $8.50 plus tip for 15 large dumplings, three dishes of panchan and water -- thanked the lady for good food ("jjalmogossumnida") and left, fuming... where on earth was Ray? Finally, as I was walking around noticing places that serve crab and places that serve noodles, he calls. "I'm here, come eat."
And so I set out for Shik Do Rak (9691 GG Blvd.), the "house of dduk bo sam", having already eaten a shocking quantity of dumplings. I ordered a Hite (Korean beer, like Japanese, very carbonated and light) and, thinking I'd have a small dinner, a combination of a "small bowl" of naengmyon, some kalbi, and dduk bo sam, which will be explained anon.
The first thing to appear was a metal bowl 12 inches across full of naengmyon. A shocking amount -- the "large" bowl of pho at any pho shop is smaller than this. Hot Asian mustard and vinegar appeared and I doctored my broth -- fantastic. The broth -- stock, really -- was perfect, and it was so cold the gelatin was starting to set, giving it a very toothsome, substantial quality. The noodles were chewy, as they're supposed to be. I didn't eat all of it, though, because the kalbi came.
You see, while you can cook your own at a Korean barbecue, normally you have to order more than two orders of meat to be able to do it. I'm perfectly fine with having someone else cook my food, really, so this worked out great. The kalbi were cooked on the rib and then cut off for me by the waiter, who showed us how to eat dduk bo sam. You put some lettuce (which comes shredded in a bowl) on your plate, drag a piece of meat through the provided dish of chili sauce, and then take either a rice paper or a very thinly-sliced piece of radish and put it on top. Grab the wrapper and the meat and whatever lettuce comes with it, and put it in your mouth. The taste is indescribable -- kalbi are the most flavourful cut of meat, in my oh-so-humble opinion, and with the chili sauce, the lettuce and the wrap it's a perfect package. I like the rice "paper" (actually very thick and shiny, it looks like butterflied squid) better than the radish, but both are good.
The panchan were very good but parsimonious in their offerings -- I had to ask for kimchi, because what I got was oisebagi (whole cucumbers) and long strings of radish. I get the feeling if there had been more people, we'd have got more panchan, or if I'd made a scene about it (using the "chogiyo" button), but it was OK as we weren't starving.
I took part of the kalbi and most of the naengmyon home. I had to explain the pho method of noodle soup transport to the waiter, who seemed surprised, having told me that if I took the naengmyon home the noodles would dissolve in the soup. "So put the soup in one container and everything else in the other, and I'll reassemble it when I get home," I said.
The best part, though, was the price. A huge amount of kalbi, a ridiculously oversized bowl of cold noodles, and a 640 mL bottle of Hite set me back... $21 plus tip.
There's so much more to explore -- karaoke bars with soju (Korean sweet potato vodka) and anju (snack foods), cold raw crab, noodles, soon dubu (tofu stew), black goat barbecue, but at least I know it's there, and it's close by... but perhaps a couple of weeks of studying Korean first.