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Aug 20, 2012 04:25 PM

ISO newbie-friendly Korean restaurant in north Orange County (Fullerton/Buena Park/Brea/La Habra)

I’ve been an avid lurker on the Los Angeles Chowhound board since 2006 -- a near-daily reader, as a matter of fact -- but am only now taking the plunge by posting here. Please pardon my overly long first post here, since I'm a Chowhound virgin.

My husband and I have enjoyed dining out since we met more than 27 years ago. If the fare of a local restaurant is solid and its wait staff is helpful and affable, the odds are good we've made that spot a favorite. In general, we're rather adventurous and appreciate a wide array of cuisines -- Mexican, Cuban, Italian (northern and southern), Greek, Mediterranean, German, casual/bistro French, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, German, Swiss, seafood, steakhouse, American soul food and classic diner/comfort fare -- a great deal. Although we've enjoyed our share of fine dining over the last quarter decade for birthdays, anniversaries, vacations and business functions, we especially love our favorite hole-in-the-wall sites close to home. However, neither of us is familiar with Korean cuisine.

Since we're both fans of spicy food, we enjoy kimchi. At a wine tasting/dinner party I attended a couple of years ago, the Korean-born host served galbi as the main course.. (Let's put it this way: With my first bite of that succulent marinated steak, my taste buds went into a vigorous happy dance.)

Anyway, we're looking forward to heading out to a Hound-worthy Korean spot for an early fall dinner. (Our combined schedules are beyond busy until then.) You'll find below the major criteria for our choice, which include:

* location within northern Orange County -- Fullerton, Brea, Buena Park, and La Habra would be best (we're both very familiar with the booming Korean population in Fullerton's Sunny Hills area)

* a modest-to-moderate per-person tab ($15 to $20) for a three-course meal, including a small dessert

* comfortable, relatively attractive surroundings not heavy with smoke (sorry, but we're not yet ready to cook our own main course, as Soot Bull Jeep's diners do)

* a gentle corkage fee ($20 or below is ideal)

* helpful AND PATIENT wait staff with total newbies to Korean fare (we're Anglos in our early 50s)

A few more notes:

* Neither of us has any food allergies.

* It'll be just me and my better half enjoying a night out.

* We’ll eat nearly anything, with the exception of rabbit and wild game. The better half detests eggplant.

* Because we eat vegetarian fare at home, any well-prepared veggie fare will be a super plus for this restaurant.

I'm eager to hear any and all suggestions from the board -- especially from Das Ubergeek, Servorg and Ipsedixit, three Hounders whose posts I devour. (Yes, that pun was very intentional.) Thanks, in advance, for your advice!

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  1. The best Korean places are probably a little further out than your original list of cities but only 5-10 minutes North in Rowland Heights or a little inland in the Buena Park/Garden Grove area. I am a recent LA transplant to Brea and have been eating my way through all the Korean restaurants here. A little different perspective since I'm Korean and more familiar with the food. But I have a lot of non-Korean friends who love the spicy, varied dishes of Korea. I don't think you'll get 3 course dinners per say but you'll get a main course like kalbi surrounded by rice and ban-chan like kimchee. Most of the stuff is pretty straight forward for somebody like yourself trying new dishes for the first time. There should be plenty of vegetarian options like hot stone rice dishes with just vegetables. Here are my recommendations

    1. Ong Gae Na (Rowland Heights) - Korean BBQ and neagymeon (cold Korean buckwheat noodles).
    - the waitresses here speak pretty good English and their menu is also translated into English. I think it's the best BBQ in the area unless you are keen on AYCE. You'll get a good variety of banchan (side dishes) here to eat with your rice or neagmyeon.
    2. Yong Dong (Rowland Heights) - Korean soon tofu, kalbi, tonkatsu and some other dishes.
    - it's a hot steaming bowl of tofu with vegetables and some type of protein. My favorite is the kimchee soon tofu. It comes with a bowl of rice in a hot pot. You can choose your level of spiciness. Once you eat all the rice out of the stone pot the best part is getting the waitress to add hot water to the pot to get nurungji - scorched rice. They also have a lot of combo deals you can add on with the soon tofu. I recommend the tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) or the kalbi. The tonkatsu is not a combo item though. There are a lot of non-Koreans at the restaurant so I assume they speak English well. They have English on their paper menus.
    3. New Garden (Rowland Heights) - Chinese/Korean restaurant that specializes in jajangmyeon, jam ppong and other dishes from these type of restaurants. The jajangmyeon is a noodle dish served in black bean sauce, vegetables and some meat. The jam ppong is a spicy seafood noodle dish. I prefer the jajangmyeon.
    - the other dishes we generally order are house chicken on the bone, spicy fried garlic shrimp, sweet and sour beef (sauce on the side), wang mandoo (big dumplings) and seafood appetizer which has jellyfish and sea cucumber.
    4. Ye Dang (La Habra) - more traditional homestyle Korean cooking.
    - my favorite dishes are the soojaebi (flakes of Korean pasta), galbi tang (stew made with kalbi bones), deangjang (fermented bean paste stew), bo ssam (stewed pork belly with oyster kimchee and lettuce wraps) and their banchan.
    - they have the best banchan and the most variety
    - free ice cream near the bathrooms to cool down
    - very good English menu with pictures and descriptions
    5. Yoko (Buena Park) - udon, soba, tonkatsu and sushi
    - while this is not Korean food it is definitely run by Koreans and there are always one of these types of restaurants in a heavily populated Korean area.
    - a very sparse menu with really only 3 things to choose from.
    - everything here is fantastic and you can grind up your own sesame seeds for your tonkatsu sauce.
    6. Han Yang (Buena Park) - similar to Ye Dang in their style of food.
    - they have sul lang tang which is a white milky beef soup made of bones. It's a very hearty bowl of soup for the winter.
    - very good kimchee.
    - It's in the same plaza as the next restaurant and parking can be difficult at times.
    7. Wako Honey Pig (Buena Park) - pig products grilled in front of you on a very hot stone plate/grill.
    - pick your choice of meats. Eat them with condiments and rice wrappers. They grill vegetables on parts of the grill to eat along side the meat.
    - save some kimchee and other vegetables for the end of the meal. They make a fried rice right on top of the hot stone pot with all the juices, meat and crunchy bits. It's delicious.

    17 Replies
    1. re: js76wisco

      Hopefully that is a good start. If you report back on items you particularly like or want to delve into some other areas I can try to help with other suggestions. Enjoy.

      1. re: js76wisco

        Wow, js! Thanks ever so much for your ultra-comprehensive insights and suggestions. I'll read them more thoroughly over the next week or so.

        There's no question that I'll report back after our dining venture. I already know that I'll include more than a few photos of our entrees and sides.

        By the way, I recall seeing Light House, a medium-sized restaurant on Beach Boulevard in La Habra, in the same shopping center with a Wal-Mart and a Sam's Club. Do you have any experience with that restaurant?

        1. re: Dornfelder

          I haven't been to Light House. It's an AYCE korean BBQ place. When I do go out for Korean BBQ I usually avoid AYCE just because the lines are generally very long. The one AYCE place I've been to is Cham Soot Gol. It was much better quality meat than I expected and it's in the same area. If you're really hungry these can be a good deal. They usually have ice cold beer and free ice cream as part of the deal.

          Enjoy and speak to you soon.

          1. re: js76wisco

            That's a great and extremely useful heads-up regarding Light House, js.-- thanks much for the tip on its AYCE format. Frankly, we two oldsters usually prefer a more serene spot such as Ye Dang rather than a buffet and its chaos. ;-)

            (Gee, how long has it been since we've done an AYCE buffet? A decade or more? I'm guessing that one oif the happier things about getting older is having a considerably smaller appetite: at nearly 51, I'm putting away only about two-thirds as much as I did 20 years ago.)

            Anyway, I took some time last night checking out reviews on Ye Dang and Yoko on Yelp. Even though I give Chowhound greater consideration about food, than I do Yelp, the latter's members frequently offer some pretty good insights. Later today, I'll read up on Han Yang and Wako.

            1. re: Dornfelder

              You will get smoked out at Wako/Cham Sut Gol/Lighthouse. You may also be extermely frustrated if you wait for the staff to cook your BBQ, if you order BBQ at ANY KBBQ house.

              While js76's response is thorough, none of 'em would fit every condition set forth in the original post. Perhaps remove the Euro-centric thinking hat and read up on Yelp much more extensively before commencing the Korean food project? The continental 3 course meal doesn't exist in Korean restaurants. Free, refillable, appetizers range from 4 to 10 dishes. Desserts, if available at all, is usually complimentary and minor.

              Koreans predominantly drink house liquor (soju/beer/makkeoli/bekseju, etc). Going in and asking for BYO will raise the irritability of the staff. They most likely don't/won't have a corkage policy, and it'll add to the confusion. Smaller mom/pop places (that serve cheaper fare) like Ye Dang rely on alcohol sales, and will/may probably freak out if a miguk saram brought in a bottle of wine. Han Yang doesn't even have alcohol license, even though it's probably the perfect place to start that Korean food journey (cheap, low key, home style cooking, USED TO BE AN A&W ROOT BEER SHACK!). There's nothing "Korean" about Yoko. Might as well go to Curry House.

              Why not wet your feet at the Han Nam Chain Supermarket food court before establishing various criteria? The Korean restaurant that fits all the requirements doesn't exist and it seems this venture is setup for failure.

              1. re: TonyC

                Hi, Tony -- thanks for the reply.

                Just wanted to mention with my first post that my better half and I are more than comfortable with a wide array of cuisines -- that's all.

                And, at least three times a day since 2008, I've scoured Yelp for reviews throughout Orange County and parts of Los Angeles County for pretty much anything germane to what we do: eateries, markets, you name it. Chowhound, because of its more reputable contributors as a whole, gets my +1 for reviews -- it's a huge relief to read reviews by grown-ups without having to weed out teeny-bopper snark.

                * Soju? We love it, and wish it were available at more places! We'll be delighted to order it instead of going BYO with wine.

                * I mention dessert as a very optional item. Neither of us has a big-time sweet tooth.

                * Where is the nearest Han Nam to Placentia? That's in northeastern Orange County. Thanks for the tip.

                * As long as a wait staffer can be patient with newbies regarding cooking our own BBQ, that'd be great with us.

                Again, know that we're adventurous, endlessly adaptable, courteous and respectful diners,. We'll be more than happy, Tony, to keep your ideas in mind as we broaden our dining horizons. (Thank God we know there's far more to eating out than Chili's, The Whole Enchilada, Mimi's and McDonald's, some of the busiest eateries in our neighborhood.)

                EDIT: August 21, 2:06 p.m.: Just went onto Yelp -- the third time today -- and found the listing for my nearest Han Nam Chain, at the intersection of Beach and La Mirada/Malvern, in Buena Park. (In fact, it's a remodeling of the old K-facility that my family dragged me to a milllion times when I was a young'un!) I've passed Han Nam numerous times, and will pay its food court a visit very soon.

                1. re: Dornfelder

                  I do admit to have selective reading comprehension. My wife would attest to that. That being said none of these places is in the same hemisphere for smokiness as Soot Bull Jeep. I still don't for the life of me understand why they throw ice cubes onto the fire to add more smoke. The 2 times I was at SBJ the waitresses were doing this.

                  As long as you are fine with Soju I think you'll be intrigued and pleasantly surprised with any of the places mentioned in the thread including Surah, I don't know any Korean places that are BYOB either.

                  I've walked into tons of ethnic restaurants over the years with very little knowledge of the cuisine or dishes and had a lot of great discoveries. It seems like you have a genuine interest and that the flavors of Korean food appeal to you. Nothing ventured nothing ventured.

                  1. re: js76wisco

                    The better half and I love soju, and are more than a bit disappointed that most mainstream groceries in northern Orange County -- Albertson's, Vons, Ralphs, and Stater Brothers -- haven't started including it in their spirits selection. That's definitely too bad, since we really like how it pairs with sweet and sour mix, orange juice, or cranberry juice for a flavorful and refreshing highball. We know that soju's available at BevMo, but the rather warm ambient temperature inside the two nearest locations -- Brea and Orange -- is a terminal deterrent for our spirit and/or wine shopping

                    And thanks much, js, for the props! I've always been happy to expand my dining horizons. (Side note: For my eighth birthday, when my parents took me to the Anthony's Fish Grotto in downtown San Diego, I ordered a small bucket of steamed clams. About a year later, I began enjoying abalone steak.)

                    We truly look forward to trying Han Nam and, later, whichever dining spot we choose among the variety of suggestions mentioned by you, DU and Tony.

                  2. re: Dornfelder

                    Park's BBQ in Los Angeles if you're willing to drive has everything you're looking for (except 15-20pp).

                    They'll cook your meat, speak decent english, and charge $15-20 corkage. When I went, they only charged corkage on the first bottle.

                    1. re: ns1

                      Park's looks as if it'll be some time next year, ns, with a bit of Korean dining experience under our collective belt. IMHO, that corkage is very reasonable for the area.

                    2. re: Dornfelder

                      Yes, that's the Han Nam chain. Had figured you were in La Habra/Buena Park, hence gave that rec, but if you're in Placentia, the super H Mart on Diamond Bar Blvd is way more impressive.

                      As much as people knock Yelp, it's useful for this type of discovery process.

                      Anywho, from the ground, js76wisco has it covered. There are few other few other places (Mirak, an outpost of the KTown black goat stew joint, Moo Dae Po Fullerton, the "winning" BBQ at a Korean BBQ cook-off, NangMan for getting wasted and eating authentically bad K-bar food), but seriously, his/her list can already be daunting.

                      Used to enjoy Harubang's (5941 Beach Blvd Buena Park) simple stews/soups/fishes, but they changed ownership to "SARANGBANG MATJIP" a couple months ago, and I don't know how it fairs. Like Han Yang, it used to be a fast food joint (Taco Bell).

                      1. re: TonyC

                        Actually, Tony, the Buena Park location is vastly easier for me to get to than the Diamond Bar store.

                        The easy-peasy drive to the BP site is this: westbound Chapman to Malvern, to the intersection of Malvern/La Mirada and Beach. It's helpful that a freeway's not needed to get there. (Heading to the Diamond Bar store requires getting onto the 57 northbound, which can be a pain in the backside to handle much of the day because of the seemingly nonstop traffic into the Inland Empire.)

                        After going through the Yelp photos of the BP Han Nam, I noticed that impressive food court. Thanks much for the tip! I am definitely planning to pay it a visit next week.

                        In general, I tend to respect CH reviews and input more than those on Yelp, as I'd mentioned before. And while numerous Yelp comments are extremely well written and intelligent, I've become really sick of plowing through the snarky drek of the junior high and high school crowd to get to the good stuff.

                        And, yes, I'll keep Sarangbang in mind as a casual spot for Korean. Thanks for that additional tip -- I know exactly where it is.

                        1. re: Dornfelder

                          If you're willing to head south instead of north, there's an H Mart at the corner of Garden Grove Blvd and Magnolia, and a Han Nam Chain on Beach near-ish Chapman. That's at least not awful, assuming no traffic through the Crush.

                          The H Mart on GG Blvd. doesn't have a barbecue restaurant, though. You can get barbecue, but it's better to get other things like mandu (dumplings) and stews.

                    3. re: TonyC

                      After five egregiously busy weeks, I carved out an hour and a half to peruse Han Nam Market (the Buena Park/La Mirada location) Tuesday afternoon. To keep this short and sweet, it's a market I already know I'll visit many times more: The produce looked lovely and fresh, and was reasonably priced -- huge factors for me and my better half -- and I was intrigued by the fish/seafood section, since I'm a calamari fan.

                      Since I'd mentioned that we really enjoy soju, I was happy to find two soju selections at $12 or under for 1.75-liter bottles. That, in my albeit limited experience with soju shopping in northern Orange County, is a terrific price for one of our favorite spirits -- oops, I mean concentrated rice wine. I'll pick up a bottle or two when I'm there next.

                      Although only about five items were available for self-serve sampling, I made sure to try them all: the "mild-hot" pork sausages (addictiive and utterly delicious), the mild cured pork (lovely), pickled cucumber (nice), cooked seaweed leaves (a tasty, umami-laden alternative as a veggie side dish, IMHO), and dried squid (tasty, since I enjoy gamey food). Short sighted as I was during that portion of the excursion, I forgot to take pictures of those items.

                      By about 4:45 p.m., I stopped at Myun Dong, the Korean spot at Han Nam's food court to try a small side dish. Since I didn't feel like a gut-buster of a item -- steamy 97-degree days have a way of tamping down my appetite -- I ordered a bowl of cold soybean soup for $3.25. The server was gracious with me when I placed my order, beyond courteous and helpful with a complete newbie to Korean cuisine. What I wasn't prepared for was the sheer size of the bowl itself: It was massive, which meant that this gentle but savory soup would make a nice light lunch the next time I'm in the Han Nam area on an ultra-steamy day.

                      (Yes, I took a couple of pictures of the soybean soup. They're on their way in the next week or so.)

                      Should the weather turn for the better when I visit Han Nam, I'll try the hot tofu soup, which a few customers ordered; it filled the dining area with an array of lovely aromas. (I noticed that one of the eateries features Chinese fare, which I'm somewhat more familiar with; with the exception of the honey-walnut entrees, I'm planning to try more of Myun Dong's Korean entrees and soups.)

                      Yes, I know that I rambled on plenty over what no doubt seems like nothing to experienced Hounds. That said, however, I wanted to check back with you great folks to mention my very positive experience at Han Nam Market. Of course, I'll check back here with updates. Thanks much for your help with this newbie to Korean cuisine, Hounds!

                      1. re: Dornfelder

                        Once the weather cools down, if you're up near that Han Nam Chain, go to Jang Mo Gip at Beach and (I think) Rosecrans. Order seolleongtang (sul-lung-tang). It's a big bowl of completely unsalted beef soup; there are huge bowls of sea salt and green onions on the table. They'll ask if you want clear noodles or rice noodles, and you want clear noodles. It's amazingly rich, hearty soup.

                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                          By now, the weather's taken a turn for the cooler. That means a visit to Jang Mo Gip next week. Thanks much for the tip, DU.

                  3. re: js76wisco

                    Unless they have changes, this LIght House BBQ is not an AYCE. I think there is another that is, but the one by Sam's Club is not. It is actually my favorite, but I tend to find one place that I like and go back to it, as opposed to trying a bunch of them.

                    The have always been friendly and not at all exclusionary to a non-Korean like myself. I have been many times and love the variety of side dishes, as well as the meat options and the other accoutrements.

                    As for the OP requirements, this is definitely a cook your own establishment, so that would fall outside of what they are looking for. I don't bother with wine at these places, so I can't talk about the corkage, and desert really is not a a big draw, though they do offer a very lovely spiced soup/tea after the meal which works for me.

            2. I would suggest Surah in Buena Park. Fits your requirements nicely.

              4 Replies
              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                Thanks truly for the rec, DU! If you're giving Surah a thumbs-up, it sounds like it's a winner.Any idea on corkage there?

                1. re: Dornfelder

                  I don't know, because I don't ever drink wine with Korean food. They sell soju, though, and beer, which are the traditional accompaniments to a barbecue meal.

                  Surah's a great place to jump off because everyone speaks English, the ladies are gracious rather than gruff, and it's still Korean-frequented, as opposed to the places closer to Knott's, which are for miguk saram (Americans) only.

                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                    * post delayed by 15 minutes, thanks to this 4.1-magnitude earthquake centered much too close to home*

                    Sorry I haven't replied until today, everyone -- things have been outrageously busy since my first post.

                    Since my better half and I both really like soju, DU, we'll happy to have it with our barbecue. And we prefer to stay closer to northeastern Buena Park, since it's 1) very near the Sunny Hills/Coyote Hills area that's home to a large, upscale Korean community and 2) away from the hordes of Knott's tourists.

                    Sounds as if Surah is where we'll start. We'll definitely appreciate the helpful and friendly approach by the wait staff. Well before Surah, though, I plan to stop by the Han Nam at Beach/Malvern next week to see what's available, and visit the food court for lunch. After that, I'll report back to you with my experience.

                  2. re: Dornfelder

                    Agree with the surah recommendation. Lots of banchan (side dishes), the bean paste soup is great. Marinated galbi is a little too sweet for my taste. The waitresses dress up in traditional korean garb and I think they might have wine or allow wine

                2. Sometimes, I just don't want to drive. Near home, I've seen Jinga on State College Blvd many times, parking lot was busy last time I passed by. I've never eaten there, but they have a menu that is cooked in the kitchen, so you don't have to do it, and it fits your price point.

         also available during dinner

                  If you want dessert, there is a Red Mango and a Yogurtland just a bit down the street. A yelp review also mentions self-serve ice cream.