seoul searching no. 7
korean barbecue is not haute cuisine; rather, it is raw, marinated meat brought to the table that diners grill themselves. restaurants are normally undecorated, holes in the wall with sometimes barely-an-A rating in the window. they are loud and a bit chaotic as both the waitresses and the patrons shout orders and requests across the dining room. it's not necessarily rudeness - that's just the way koreans are. the exhaust hoods suffer from their own mechanical version of emphysema, and suck air about as well as a smoker who's been blazing through a pack a day for 40 years. and that hanging haze that will eventually infuse every article of clothing with that undeniable galbi stench, isn't just from the grills. cigarette smoke sometimes wafts in from outside as well. korean food is casual, rustic, unrefined - your hands get dirty and your hair reeks of smoke afterwards.
but sagan, in buena park, renounces that humble korean heritage in every possible way. it appears that the owner actually put quite a bit of money toward interior design - soft, neutral colors, dark wood furniture, and subtle asian accents like water, stone, and lacquered wood sculpture. it is not quiet, but there is no chaotic din from an overexposed kitchen overflowing into the dining room. the servers don't shout, but communicate with each other through earpieces and mini walkie talkies. diners get their attention with a button at each table that mysteriously alerts the staff that there is a request. it's quite matrix-ish, but without the black leather and sunglasses.
this all made me skeptical of course, because my very unscientific statistics show that korean restaurants can have good food or a good ambience, not both, and very rarely are they something in the middle (*ahem* woo lae oak). but i was pleasantly surprised that sagan could deliver on both, and somewhat shocked that i would ever find it in orange county.
bahnchan were brought to the table, some traditional, some a little unfamiliar to me, but all of them together balanced spicy, salty, sweet, crisp and soft. the galbi and bulgogi were properly marinated, and i won't fault sagan for it being a bit too sweet for my taste - i have accepted that as a general taste trend in korean barbecue. the galbi meat was already cut off the ribs to make for a less neanderthal-like experience, but i do miss the chewy periosteum and connective fibers of the bones. the bulgogi was good as well, but the star of the table was the ee-myun-soo gui (broiled mackerel). unless the fish itself is bad, i can't really imagine a restaurant making this badly. it's just crispy fish and salt. as if pounds of beef and an entire fish wasn't enough, we finished the meal with naeng-myun (buckwheat noodles in cold broth) and mahn-doo gook (dumpling soup) which were, apparently, quite good because we finished almost all of it.
still, though, i am not sure i am completely comfortable with this eliza-doolittle-ization of korean cuisine. sagan, like me, suffers from a bit of an identity crisis - not sure who it is or what it wants to be. it's a korean restaurant, but it also has authentic japanese foods and korean-japanese foods on the menu. it's in what looks like a remodeled applebee's. it seems a little out of place there on a strip of beach blvd. dotted with the tgi fridays and chili's that cater to the tourist family crowds of knott's berry farm. there are grills on each table with both gas and charcoal. it's quiet, upscale, almost sophisitcated, but when it's all said and done, it's just korean food.
oh well, in america we're all one big bibimbap of cultures and cuisines. and this is l.a. - it's normal to be mildly schizophrenic anyway.
7801 beach blvd.
(between la palma ave. and the i-91 freeway)
buena park, ca 90620