“If you don’t get there before five, you can forget about getting a table.” – Mom
My family goes to different Korean restaurants to satiate different moods. If it’s summertime and we want cold noodle soup, it’s all about Corner Place. BCD Tofu House is for chilly winter nights or if someone has a cold. But our absolute favorite is the spot for lean barbecue: Mo Ran Gak.
It’s a bit pricier. (I like the 10.99 all-you-can eat restaurant variety, and Mo Ran Gak is around $15-20per person). Sometimes in the summer the power goes out. Oddly enough, people continue eating in the dark like nothing happened. I guess it’s because the gas stoves carved in each table are unaffected by the outages. So in true Korean fashion, as long as people can still cook and eat there’s no complaints.
That being said, it’s definitely not all-you-can eat. Mo Ran Gak is a sit down. It’s always crowded and you have to wait longer than 15 minutes for a table. There’s some questionable items on the menu involving intestines and tripe, either with fish eggs, in a hot and spicy beef broth, or with vegetables in a sizzling stone pot. The restaurant reeks of smoke and you leave smelling like a Korean BBQ.
But their food is delicious. Take the ban chan (side dishes), for instance. Ban chan comes free with the meal and their little bowls decorate the table until there’s no elbow room left. Mo Ran Gak serves six kinds of ban chan: spicy cabbage kimchee, sweet cucumber kimchee, anchovies, potato salad, chili squid, and salted beef. When mom was a kid living in Seoul, salted beef was the most luxurious item for dinner so she’s always stoked when it comes out. The women in the back make the kimchi daily and chop it into nice little morsels perfect for your mouth.
It’s the place for a carnivore. They have this black stone teapot filled with not the usual green tea or black tea, but a steaming garlicky beef broth. That’s right. You pour BEEF BROTH into your tin cup. Best. Thing. Ever. Pure. Protein. Speaking of beef, Mo Ran Gak’s meat is extremely lean. Wavy globules of fat will not be found on the beef here.
Most people go for the BBQ combo plates, but they’ve got plenty of soup and rice entree options. Entrees include:
- Pyeongyang Mul Naegmyeon: cold buckwheat noodle in beef broth, $9.95
- Dolpan Bibimbap: rice topped with vegetable, meat on sizzling stone pot, $11.95
- Mandukuk: dumpling soup, $10.95
Dad, Mom and I usually share the Mo Ran Gak combination for two people, which is more than enough food for three people with healthy appetites. At $39.95 you get black angus brisket, black pork belly or marinated boneless short ribs, soybean paste stew or tofu soup, and a steamed egg soufflé. Plus all the ban chan, salad, and rice paper/radish wrappers you want.
The proper way to do BBQ is to eat some ban chan with rice as a first course. Rice is a dollar extra. Once the meat is cooked, place it atop a rice paper wrapper or a radish wrapper along with some salad. I like to call these Korean tacos. Then dip your taco into one of three sauces: red chili paste, sesame oil, or pickled garlic soy sauce. Between bites of meat and salad, eat kimchee, squid, or one of the sautéed veggies cooking on the side of the grill.
While you’re enjoying your second course, servers will come out with more food: soybean paste stew, egg soufflé, and a sliced mung bean vegetable pancake. These make up the third course. Soybean paste stew brings mom to her childhood. “This is what Halmoni would make all the time at home, ” she says. “We’d have this or bean sprout soup for protein along with some fresh rice and kimchee. That was our meal 90% of the time.”
The bubbling brown soup consists of zucchini, tofu, scallions, and small slices of meat. Due to the heavy garlic flavor, its best when you spoon some rice and then dip your spoon in the broth. The rice acts as a neutralizer.
Both the soybean paste stew and egg soufflé are served in hot stone pots so they remain hot for a long time. The egg soufflé is so soft and tastes wonderful when dipped into the pickled garlic soy sauce.
Servers will return to cook the second meat course and fourth overall course and generously bring more ban chan. By this point everyone is pretty stuffed but the show must go on.
You can add a cold noodle dish to your meal for $4.95, so that’s what we did for course number five. “Mashesa yo! Drink this, it’s so refreshing,” says mom, shoving the cold noodle soup in my face. Slurp, slurp. Cold noodle soup consists of buckwheat noodles, sliced cucumbers, boiled egg, and sliced radishes. It essentially tastes like fermented radishes and is a good finishing course for BBQ. It cleanses the palate.
As mom says, the best thing about Mo Ran Gak is that it’s not fusion. There’s no sushi on the menu, no pho or fried egg rolls. The ban chan doesn’t cost extra. There’s plenty of vegetables to go around. The courses are large and the meal takes a long time to finish. It’s 100% Korean, a real authentic place. At Mo Ran Gak, you eat like a real Korean.
Mo Ran Gak is located in Garden Grove, CA. It’s open everyday except Monday.