What's not to love? Spicy, sweet, pickled? Seriously. I'm actually surprised it took me this long to try kim chee, but then again - I kind of like it that way. I like to think that things in your path come along in their own time - restaurants, cuisines, countries, even people. I also really like having something to look forward to, and I'd been looking forward to trying Korean Barbecue for a long time.
Too busy to cook and too late to set up a dinner at someone's house, our supper club decided to dine out this month. Being both budget conscious and curious - we narrowed our options to Korean or Vietnamese, and ultimately settled on Buga. Chowhounders and a few friends of mine had recommended it as THE place to go for Korean BBQ. I got sucked into reading reviews (why don't I do anything else as obsessively as I research restaurants??) on Yelp, and was a little bothered by the wide ranging comments - talking about the service, prices, etc. I needn't have worried though, the service was perfectly lovely, and the prices were reasonable.
After poring over the menu and asking a few questions, our group of five decided to order two grilled meats - the kalbi and sliced pork belly - and three other dishes, the Jap Chae, Vegetable Bibimbap, and the delicious-looking spicy stir fried pork dish pictured below, the name of which is escaping me right now. It was a big hit with our group. Soon after we ordered, our server returned to light the gas grill in the center of the table and drop off the panchan - small, savory, cold dishes meant to be shared. These included small servings of cucumber kim chee, radish kim chee, cabbage kim chee, pickles made with zucchini, squid and broccoli, a chili sauced eggplant, cooling daikon - and some rice paper and chili sauce to garnish the meat. I loved them all, including all three of the kim chee varieties - but I think I loved the radishes most. The fermentation makes them a little funky, but a good kind of funky - the umami kind. The Jap Chae reminded me of Vietnamese glass noodles - stir fried with pork and vegetables, and the pork reminded me of delicious spicy Chinese food. I wasn't as fond of the Bibimbap, but it was popular with the rest of the table. Despite all the chilis, nothing was unbearably hot, and the flavor was tempered with sweetness.
The meats for the grill initially seemed a bit expensive, but given that there was enough of each for five of us to share (small portions, but still) the $20. price tag didn't seem so high. The meat is sliced thinly and cooks quickly. Of the two meats we chose, the kalbi was by far my favorite - the pork belly was fine, but very fatty and a little bland. Signs in the restaurant announce that they serve Coleman Natural Beef - which was purchased last year by Meyer Ranch. This isn't pastured beef, but it is raised without growth hormones or antibiotics, and according to humane standards. (At least according to their website.) Assuming this is true, the meat is undoubtedly a little more expensive than ordinary commodity beef, making the price seem a little more reasonable. All of our food and a large Korean beer that Lisa and I shared came to less than $30. per person, tax and tip included. (We had contemplated ordering one of the family style meals but were very glad we hadn't when we saw the bill.)
Buga is located just off 805 at Clairemont Mesa, in the parking lot of a Motel 6. It actually used to be a JoJo's coffee shop - if you remember those. (We ate there when I was a kid - and at Organ Power Pizza across the street, where the oven was powered by yes - a pipe organ.) The atmosphere isn't going to win any awards, but it's clean, they have nice large booths and you won't be looking at the floor or the light fixtures anyway. You'll be looking at the grill and the marinated meat sizzling away on it, the nifty white bowls filled with tidbits of spicy, pickled deliciousness, and your friends' smiling faces.
Buga Korean BBQ
5580 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92117
Kirk wrote about Buga in 2005, and by the looks of it not much has changed! Check out his post here