Before I actually went there, I expected Orange Bap in Anaheim to be a build-your-own rice bowl concept much like anything else that's new these days. It's not that it would've been better if it were, but after encountering so many failed attempts at Chipotle-izing Asian food, I thought this might be the restaurant that would finally crack the code. And the key to it would've been bibimbap, the Korean dish from which Orange Bap takes its name.
Bibimbap literally means “mixed rice” and if you've ever had it, you'd know it's basically a giant bowl of rice topped with distinct sectors of meat and vegetables. And since all the components are modular, interchangeable—and you're supposed to toss everything together as if it were a Cobb salad anyway—it's a natural fit for a Chipotle-like assembly line. But then I remembered that if Orange Bap did it this way, it would only be following the footsteps of Bibigo in LA and California Gogi Grill in Irvine, two other build-your-own bibimbap concepts that already exist.
As it turns out, Orange Bap is nothing like those. It's a sit-down restaurant with a menu that just happens to outline the bibimbap ordering process in steps. But when you ask for any bibimbap here—be it the chicken, pork, beef or any of its spicy variants for a dollar extra—it's built and cooked to order in the open kitchen while you wait. And as I found out, there wasn't any reason Orange Bap needed to be anything other than what it is.
First of all, this restaurant, which is located in a strip mall in a rarely traversed part of Anaheim, wouldn't work as an assembly-line eatery. It's not busy enough. On the Saturday night of my visit, employees outnumbered customers. Other than our table of three, I didn't see more than two other diners in the spacious room the entire evening. As such, if any of the bibimbap meats were already sitting out, precooked, it would only dry out. Second of all, regardless of what protein or starch I opted for, Orange Bap's bibimbap bowls automatically came garnished with every available vegetable side dish anyway, since it's generally understood that any bibimbap eater wants the works.
And why wouldn't I want everything? Each component in Orange Bap's patchwork quilt of a dish was essential. In our bowl, there was a Fullerton Arboretum's worth of plants. Around the circumference and surrounding the central pillar of meat and fried egg, there were crunchy things, soft things, things that added texture, flavor and aroma. I encountered shredded cabbage, blanched juliennes of carrot, lightly boiled bean sprouts, cooked mushrooms, seasoned zucchini and the distinctive squeak of bracken fiddleheads, a traditional bibimbap topping seen only in the most traditional of OC's Korean restaurants.
To flavor the rice, there was an array of sauces to choose from, including the traditionally viscous red pepper paste called gochujang and a thinner version of it cut with citrus juice. We poured our choice of sauce into the bowls, then folded the ingredients together with spoons. Before long, the thin shavings of beef bulgogi and the fried egg, which I chopped to pieces, became one with everything.
While we ate, the nutty fragrance of sesame oil wafted up into our nostrils. In our mouths, the crisp and the soft, the cool and the warm blended, blissfully embracing one another. This, I thought to myself, was why I've always loved bibimbap. It encapsulated the flavors and smells of a full Korean barbecue feast in a single bowl priced less than $10. And I don't know when I've had bulgogi that was as tender or as wonderfully soft.
Our bibimbap orders also came with a choice of soup, either a standard bowl of miso or one that had shredded veggies in a chilled liquid with a vinegary tang. For the bowl itself, I could've opted for brown rice instead of white, or even ditched the rice altogether for noodles. There were even options for teriyaki, salsa or an Italian marinara as sauces. But when it comes to bibimbap, I've not yet found any reason to stray from the traditional.
Besides, Orange Bap offered other non-Korean avenues of exploration, such as the grilled calamari ceviche we scooped up with store-bought tortilla chips. The squid was served in strips, tossed with bits of mango and a tangy tomato-based sauce that's neither Korean nor Mexican. And then there was Orange Bap's perfect version of a poke bowl, which comes served fully constructed with onions, fish roe and pickles. When it comes to bibimbap and poke bowls, customization is highly overrated.
Orange Bap, 2717 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 236-5999; www.orangebap.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $12-$25, food only. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.