5580 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, San Diego
"So where do you go now for good Korean food since Boo Choo changed hands?" I asked my buddy Sang, whose parents are from Korea. "Buga is the place," he said. "It's in a weird location, a strip-mall about a half-block off the 805 off-ramp, sharing the parking lot with a Motel 6. But the food is good. They don't have wood-fired table barbecues like Boo Choo did, it's just gas, but they have a big menu -- a lot of traditional dishes that most Korean restaurants don't offer."
"Take me to your Buga!" I said, and he did. The restaurant occupies a former Coco's, with a pretty fountain outside, green industrial carpeting, lots of blond wood, and nearly all booth seating, with those in the center divided by half-height glass walls. There's a separate, narrow sushi bar at one end, every seat occupied on a Friday night, with a Korean chef in charge and toro among that evening's specials. Several private banquet rooms off to the sides of the restaurant are the source of most of the weekend noise. (At one point, a group of male voices in one of the rooms seemed to be chanting and cheering. They may have been stamping their feet, too. Maybe some corporate ritual, but for a few minutes there, it sure sounded as if I was back at Bondi on rugby night.)
Sang gathered an international dinner sextet -- three Koreans (Edwin, Yunhui, plus himself) -- one Taiwanese (Edwin's wife, Frances) -- and two Asian-food--loving gringos (Keith and me). You do want a group of four or more for a Korean restaurant, because the more eaters at the table, the more pan chan you're likely to get. Believe me, you want a maximum of pan chan.
Pan chan are small plates of side dishes and relishes that make a Korean dinner seem like a celebration. They're usually served along with your first courses, and if you finish them, you may luck out and get a second round. The best-known relish to non-Koreans is kim chee, spicy pickled cabbage, but that's only one of a multitude of delicious little bites. Ordinary family meals at home typically include just three relishes (or "chops"). To honor a guest, or to mark a special banquet, fully a dozen side dishes may be served. At a restaurant, there should be at least six, to show hospitality, though sometimes couples are served fewer.
We were a large group and ordered a lot, so Buga served us a "nine-chop" dinner -- with two plates of each flavor, so we didn't have to do boarding-house reach. Later, servers brought replacements for the plates that we finished. These were different from the original array, so it added up to a full-out "12-chop" dinner. My favorite of the pan chan had firm-tender slices of lotus root braised in sugared soy, a combination of sweetness, saltiness, and a hint of hot pepper, showing off the capabilities of a pretty vegetable (a little circular mandala punctured with holes) that's too often bland in other Asian cuisines. Another attention-getter had shredded anchovies (not the canned kind, but crisp) marinated in a similar sweet-savory mixture. Kim chee, with petals of soft, spicy Napa cabbage, was exceptionally tasty -- lively but not too fierce. On the other hand, everybody laughed when I tasted from the saucer containing some cold, bland, mashed white vegetable and asked what it was. "Korean potato salad" was the answer.
Yunhui, the most adept Korean-speaker at the table, took the role of spokesperson. (Her stunning looks, enough to dazzle any waiter, didn't hurt.) She ordered a sampling of traditional dishes. We began with goon mandoo, pan-fried pork dumplings served over salad, with a spicy dipping sauce on the side. Mandoo resemble Chinese pot-stickers or Japanese gyoza, filled with soft ground meat and crisp bits of vegetables -- a rewarding start to a meal. Nokdu Jun, mung bean pancakes, were pleasant too. (For a few dollars extra, you can get a more lavish version with seafood, Hae Mul Pajun, #9 on the casserole menu.) A small, whole, grilled yellow corvina (Jogi Gui) had dense, rather dry meat. "Before refrigeration, Koreans preserved fish by salting it," Yunhui explained. "This is a traditional salted fish."
Spicy bean-paste soup (Daenjang Jigae, #4, dinner menu) is the Korean version of Japanese miso -- but rousing rather than soothing. It was a great palate refresher after the solid appetizers -- a fiery broth with slices of pork and onions and diced tofu and winter squash. The soup is addictive in a slow-blooming way -- days later, I found myself craving more.
Completing the starter array and leading into the entrées was one of my favorite Korean dishes, bibim bap (pronounced bee-BIM-bop -- so much fun to say aloud that, if a toddler's listening, you'll never hear the end of it). It's actually kitchen-sink rice, produced in numerous variations. In the version we chose, Dolsot Bibim Bap (#22, dinner menu), the rice is cooked in a stone pot with various crisp veggies and topped with a poached egg. Hot sauce comes separately, to be tossed in to taste. Yunhui did the honors, in accord with the tastes of six spice lovers. It was delicious. "But it's not as good as the one they make at Brothers BBQ in San Francisco," said Edwin. "That's probably the best Korean restaurant in the country." Well, Brothers (which ought to be named Seoul Brothers) was where I first fell in love with bibim bap, and I agree -- the hot sauce here isn't quite as complex, and I think I remember more fresh bean sprouts and raw scallions (for crunch) in San Francisco. But -- the first time for a great dish is always the best, no?
The knock-your-socks-off entrée is Eundaego Jorim -- simmered black cod (aka sable), one of the richest of all fishes, in a thick red sauce that's a little sweet, a little spicy. Large circles of stewed daikon radish contribute a subtle pungency, and similar disks of tofu offer tender texture and a neutral flavor-mirror. It's a sublime combination.
A simple short-rib soup (Galbitang, dinner menu #13)) was less satisfying, because the meat wasn't quite tender and the connective tissue was still rubbery. The meat broth was light and nondescript. I'd bet that some of the fiercer-sounding dishes would be more fun -- I have my eye on Kori Gomtang, oxtail soup (#12) or Uguji Galbitang (#14), where the short ribs come with cabbage in a hearty miso, or, from the casserole dishes, Gal Bi Jim (#7), short ribs with meat sauce, garlic, and onions. There's a lot to explore on this long menu of 44 dinner dishes plus 14 choices of BBQ meats. Even with a sextet, it would take a week to taste it all, and judging by the savoriness of what we had, that's all to the good.
We deliberately resisted the lure of barbecue until the end of the meal. We chose bulgogi and galbi (beef strips and short ribs). A waitress rubbed the grill with onion slices before starting the barbecue, tossed a couple of mushrooms on the edge, and placed the meats on the grill when it reached the right temperature. Both meats were excellent, thanks to fine-quality Colman beef, tasty marinades -- and our own speed, swooping them onto our plates when they were cooked but not overdone. Buga goes the distance by supplying traditional "wraps" for the barbecue -- rice-flour pasta sheets and thin, sweet-pickled daikon rounds. You get both sesame oil and hot sauce for dips, so you can "have it your way," and you can order a side of lettuce for additional wraps.
Dinner ends when a server brings cups of warm, pale-brown liquid. No, they're not finger bowls to clean up after the barbecue. They contain a subtle cinnamon-flavored tea with a few pine nuts in each cup, served gratis -- a perfect light dessert after the vibrant, hearty flavors of a good Korean meal.