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O. C. LIVE | RESTAURANT REVIEW

An Adventure in Korean Cuisine: Hwang Hae Do

September 26, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Garden Grove Boulevard, particularly the stretch between Magnolia and Brookhurst, is a hotbed of Korean food and culture: restaurants, bakeries, herbalists and markets. Hwang Hae Do is one of my favorite restaurants on the street. It is named for a province in North Korea, a country noted for its hermetic resistance to the West and for the biggest dumplings in Asia.

To the eyes only, many Korean and Japanese restaurants bear a certain resemblance. Hwang Hae Do is a small, crowded place with lots of wood paneling, paper screens and even a few private dining rooms, where you sit on a straw floor and dine on cushions, Japanese tatami style.

But the tastes and smells in a Korean restaurant are completely different from those in a Japanese one. Hwang Hae Do is virtually overwhelmed with the perfumes of grilling meat, though the cooking is done in the kitchen, not at a barbecue built into your table. And Korean cooking is pungent and spicy, with none of the bland, salty flavors that characterize popular Japanese dishes. Instead, this cuisine relies on piquant seasonings for its distinctive character: bean paste, red pepper, garlic and sesame seed, to name a few of the essentials.

Perhaps the country's bitter cold accounts for its protein-rich diet: Almost every meal is built around meat or fish. Kimchi--spicy fermented cabbage--accompanies all Korean dinners, along with unlimited quantities of boiled rice and up to a dozen of the side dishes known as panch'an (and terrific here). Traditionally, Koreans eat everything at once, shunning the multi-course format. The abundance of red pepper and garlic is because the condiments have a warming effect on the body.

This background information is helpful before a meal at Hwang Hae Do, where the waitresses are charming but minimally competent in English. Furthermore, although the menu is in both English and Korean, what you are going to eat isn't necessarily apparent from the English description. No. 22, for instance, stone-pan-fried vegetable with seafood, is a pizza-sized pancake made from the mung bean, with crab, oyster, mussels and julienned vegetables mixed into the batter.

No. 2 is a good starting place for a meal, a dish the menu calls North Korean-style dumpling soup. I would advise ordering this to share. What comes to the table is a huge porcelain bowl filled to the brim with a spicy beef broth, shredded beef in long strands and five or six boat-shaped flour dumplings, each stuffed with a garlicky minced meat filling laced with chopped leeks. These dumplings are truly massive; each is about five times the size of a Chinese pot sticker. It's a feat to eat two of them.

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The dumplings can also be ordered fried or steamed. I like them steamed; eat them sprinkled with rice vinegar and the sesame garlic chili sauce from a small vat already positioned on your table. The fried dumplings are less appealing, squirting hot juice from their bubbly skins when pierced. At five giant dumplings to an order, we're talking enough fried stuff to set off a week of digestive high jinks. Don't say you weren't warned.

Actually, my favorite dish here--and in almost every Korean restaurant that serves it--is No. 10, translated as mixed rice vegetables in stone pot, dolsut bibimbap in Korean. By itself, bibimbap is a favorite with Western palates, six fresh vegetables with egg, hot bean paste and strips of beef, arranged over a bowl of rice. Add the dolsut, or stone pot, and with it comes another dimension.

The components, julienned and topped with a raw egg, are lively with food colors common only to really fresh vegetables: sunset-colored carrots, pale green cucumbers, bean sprouts as yellow as the moon. The idea is to mix everything with the rice, some of the deep red spicy bean paste, the egg and the beef. The stone pot cooks everything continually so that the rice forms a crunchy crust on the inner edges of the pot. It's wonderful.

One more dish that makes use of the stone pot is No. 6, extra soft tofu casserole. Hwang Hae Do's version doesn't measure up to the magnificent one served in the nearby Soft Tofu Restaurant, but it's still pleasing. The tofu is creamy soft, not stiff, and tiny nuggets of beef and oyster lurk beneath the surface while the whole thing bubbles before your eyes.

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Naturally there is the famous Korean barbecue, slightly sugary; very spicy marinated grilled meats, like No. 12 bulgogi, a.k.a. Korean-style barbecued beef; and No. 18, fried hot pork with vegetable. Most of Hwang Hae Do's overwhelmingly male customers order these meats, washing them down with 32-ounce bottles of Korean beer.

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