There are quite a number of Korean restaurants in the Irvine area and new ones seem to be opening every week.
This is a cuisine with which we are less familiar and so we asked a Korean friend for a recommendation. She suggested Korea House, and off we went carrying several lists of ingredients and popular dishes and their English translations. As it turned out, we were over-prepared because the menu was also in English and our waitress was eager to help.
Korean-style barbecue is a feature in many of these restaurants. Each table has a built-in grill in the middle of the table and a hood above. Our friend chose this particular restaurant because it also features a number of other specialties.
Every meal begins with a course of small dishes called banchan. They vary in number and content from restaurant to restaurant.
At Korea House, they fill the table. Of course, there is kimchi — a very spicy fermented, pickled vegetable — with cabbage being the most famous kind, as well as radish kimchi. There were fish cakes that looked like fat, wide noodles but had lots of flavor. They were just delicious, but we wouldn't have known they were made from fish if we hadn't been told.
We also loved the cold kalbi (short ribs) that had been braised in aromatic dark spices and mild green chili. The kombu (seaweed) strips with sweet sesame flavor were also quite tasty. More prosaic were the steamed broccoli, pickled cucumber slices and the lightly dressed mung bean sprout salad. Last, but definitely not least, was a wonderful beef broth and radish soup.
After this buffet of palate teasers and pleasers came the main courses. The grill was lit and out came a large platter of marinated ribeye, called bulgogi, the most well-known of the Korean barbecued meats. However, there are many choices and combinations of meats, marinated or not. In addition to short ribs, spicy pork, chicken and pork belly, there is also tongue and tripe for the more adventurous.
They can cook the meats in the kitchen if you like, but it's a lot of fun to do it yourself at the table. Throw the meat on the grill and pluck off a piece or two; when it's done to your liking, dip it in sauce and place it on top of your bowl of rice.
The rice itself is a slightly sticky, flavorful, white grain. We particularly enjoyed it saturated with meat juices and one of the two dipping sauces, salt and oil or sweet, soy sesame. Hot sauce is on the table to add as you like.
Usually served as an appetizer, haemul pajeon is a seafood scallion pancake big enough to serve a table full of people. The rice and wheat flour batter is chock full of chopped seafood and pan-fried. It looks like an omelet the size of a pizza and has the texture of a breakfast pancake. We thought it was quite good but we had to take more than half of it home.
We bravely ordered the daen jang chi ge, although we'd been told it was an acquired taste. This particular tofu hot pot, bubbling in an earthenware bowl, was a spicy, salty soup with zucchini, onions and a lot of hot chili and bean curd paste. It was a very pungent flavor — not for the timid or the uninitiated. Our advisor was correct.
However, there is a number of less-challenging, soft tofu hot pots to choose from. All have soft tofu, quivering in a spicy broth. Try the seafood one. It's the most popular.
The only dessert is mochi, sweet rice flour pounded into a sticky dough and wrapped around ice cream balls. It's a bit different but quite likable, with its sweet chewy coating and cold, creamy filling.
Although barbecue is the main attraction, we'll be back for naengmyon (cold summer buckwheat noodles in broth) and bim bap (rice mixed with vegetables and meat, topped with an egg).
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Information: (949) 552 9998 or koreahouse.com (coming soon)
Where: 5301 University Drive, Irvine
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Appetizers: $7.99 to $24.99
Barbecue, $17.99 to $109.99
Specialties, $9.99 to $19.99
Wine, sake, soju:
Glass: $6.99 to $14.99