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There are more Korean restaurants serving sundubu jjigae in Irvine than you can count on one hand, maybe two. Three alone are clustered in a single shopping center at Culver and the 5 freeway, all plying the all-purpose winter-weather balm that can tame a cold better than mom's chicken soup: Korean soft tofu is always served in roiling, single-serving cauldrons, flanked by an army of side dishes called banchan. Bubbling up over the rest, the meal Kaya puts out is the cream of the Korean crop. The soup is thick, rich, with a broth that can be made as spicy as you like and teeming with silken bean curd, seafood and bits of meat. And then there's the rest of the menagerie: little refillable saucers of kimchi, creamy potato salad, cucumbers in chili paste, stir-fried glass noodles called jap chae and more. How well these side dishes are made demonstrates the care and quality Kaya takes with the rest of the menu. The mixed-rice dish, bibimbap, comes in a myriad of styles. The kalbi, barbecue short ribs, is luscious and not overly sweet. And the panjeon, Korean scallion pancakes, is clearly a source of familial pride. It's served hot off the frying pan and at no extra charge, like the bread at most restaurants.
If you were to judge a Korean restaurant by how many varieties of complimentary panchan dishes are offered, Kaya would automatically triumph. It puts out 10 in all, while most are content in providing half that. Each item tastes of motherly effort and care. Egg enriches the cooling potato salad, the chap chae wiggles, and the stewed potato cubes taste as though they were glazed in honey. We aren't even counting the complimentary crispy Korean pancake called panjeon, which could be considered... More »
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