With large pockets of Orange County populated by the Asian culture, finding an Asian restaurant these days has become effortless with a myriad of options to choose from. The difficulty, however, is sifting through those options and finding a restaurant that sticks to traditional flavors and home style cooking. After searching high and low, I managed to find a diamond in the rough within a 15-minute drive from where I call home. I introduce to you, the venue that brings me back to simpler times where owning an anti-skip protection CD player made you the cool kid: Kaya Restaurant.
This Korean gem is located in Irvine (surprise, surprise), tucked away in the furthest back corner of a small shopping plaza right off of the 5 freeway and Culver. Unless you have shopped at the underwhelming grocery store that is located right next door or happened to dine at the Caspian Restaurant in the past, you would not even know the restaurant existed.
As you enter, the owner and staff promptly greet you with a warm welcome and seat you immediately, provided the 15-table restaurant is not fully occupied. After ordering, one of the waitresses will bring a variety of side dishes (pictured above surrounding the large bowl) out to complement the meal, known as “ban-chan.” This is a very common practice throughout most Korean restaurants and while the sides themselves may differ from restaurant to restaurant, the concept remains the same so there is no reason to fight the waitress saying that you did not order those items and instead, like love, just let it happen. From the 1 o’clock position moving clockwise the sides are as follows (subject to change): Korean pancake known as “Pajeon” with vegetables, kimchi, cucumber kimchi, spicy (loosely used term in this case) tofu, sweet potatoes, bean sprouts, radish/seaweed salad.
The first dish I ordered is a staple of Korean culture: Dolsot Bibimbap (pronounced “dole-sote bee-beem-bahp”). “Dolsot” translates into “rock pot” while “Bibimbap” translates into “mixed rice.” As you can guess, the rice, along with a mixture of fresh vegetables, meat, and a fried egg, are placed in a searing hot clay pot, which keeps the food at napalm-like temperatures until the very last bite (you have been warned). Mix in the spicy/sweet chili paste sauce (gochujang) and you have the most delicious blend of spicy, sweet, and savory flavors. While this entrée is known for the blend of amazing flavors, the real prize is the crunchy rice that is found at the bottom of the pot from being cooked as you devour this dish.
Remember that scene in Ratatouille where Anton Ego takes a bite into the Ratatouille dish and it immediately takes him back to his childhood? I just happened to have the same flashback experience with this dish (more specifically, the one served at this restaurant): “Dukbokki.” This dish is the most common street food item in Korea, and also the most well known to foreigners, made from the soft and chewy rice cake, the tender fish cake, a sweet, soft crunch from the caramelized onions, and finished off with the aforementioned sweet/spicy chili sauce, gochujang. Out of all of the Dukbokki dishes that I have tried (you would not believe me if I told you how many I have tried), this one tastes identical to the one my momma used to make me when I was a just another kid who ate everything in sight. If you are feeling slightly adventurous and like spicy foods, this is a must!
Lastly, what would a Korean meal be without the famous BBQ? Nothing, I tell ya! Korean short ribs (pictured), also known as “kalbi” are quite possibly the most recognized food amongst the entire cultural cuisine. They are marinated flawlessly to give it a sweet and juicy taste, while being perfectly cooked to pull right off of the bone with a slight char to give it some extra flavor. Whether you want to supplement your meal or if you just are not the adventurous type, this side dish is absolutely perfect for anyone, including kids.
In conclusion, if you want to have a dining experience close to that of a home-cooked meal or are feeling adventurous and want to try something new, Kaya Restaurant comes highly recommended. Plus, just like Mitch Hedberg once said, “Rice is great if you’re hungry and want to eat two thousand of something,” which is something you can brag about to your friends after you are done. Or you can even put that on your résumé.