I’m in Fullerton on Commonwealth near Gilbert. It’s a neighborhood that’s at least several blocks removed from the city’s central business district. This is the town’s backstreets. There’s a 7-Eleven on one corner and a 76 gas station on the other. Go in either direction, and there are auto-repair shops, self-storage units and a smattering of apartments. But on this quiet strip of road, Hangul script is on the signage of more than half the businesses.
One such place is Heartful Made, which has only that exact phrase in English on its marquee. The rest is in Korean. If I didn’t already come here knowing that it sold food, I wouldn’t know what to expect inside. I should emphasize that Heartful Made sells food; it doesn’t serve it. The word restaurant is noticeably absent because while you could eat at one of the few tables the owner has set up, the store isn’t meant for anyone to dine in. The assumption is that customers buy what they need, then go eat it at the office, a picnic or home while watching Netflix, as I intended to do.
All of Heartful Made’s food is designed as takeout. What isn’t packaged in plastic bento boxes or supermarket sushi containers is flash frozen. There are only three things on the menu: kimbap, bentos and frozen dumplings. The bentos are stacked atop one another on a plastic fold-out table. They’re restocked throughout the day by the cook, an older Korean lady in a housedress and apron who’s mainly unseen until she comes out of the kitchen to do so.
Because I arrived a bit too early on this Saturday, she hasn’t yet gotten around to making the bulgogi bento. So when I order it, the younger woman at the register apologizes and asks if I can wait for it to be prepared.
As I waited, I watch the younger woman slice freshly made kimbap into rolls and pack them into boxes. She then arranges them by price on the counter. There’s a dizzying variety. The Korean analog to sushi rolls, kimbap is almost always sold like this, even outside of this store. Kimbap also never involves anything raw. In addition to cooked beef, the options include Spam, ham, pork belly, egg, vegetables, fish cake and shrimp tempura.
I ask her which of the two tuna kimbaps she recommends. She tells me the most popular is the one without the cream cheese. But since it’s made fresh and unrefrigerated, she advises that I consume it within three hours.
Since I still had time to kill, I eat one right away. Wound tightly as a drum inside nori, each medallion of the tuna kimbap is a kaleidoscope of colors. It’s crammed to critical mass with carrots, pickles and perilla leaves, and it immediately unfurls in my mouth as though a coiled spring made of moistness and crunch. A Subway tuna sandwich could only dream of beating it in nutrition and flavor. No soy sauce or wasabi is needed. Above all, Heartful Made’s kimbap is simple—a no-fuss, grab-and-go lunch that covers all the food groups in one mouthful.
Soon the older lady appears with my bulgogi bento. It’s still piping-hot, so the younger woman fans it a little with a plastic lid before packing it up with the spicy pork bento I also requested. With them, she includes Styrofoam containers of hot steamed rice, one for each box.
As I pay for them, I ask her about frozen dumplings, which resemble gigantic tortellinis. She tells me one variety has shrimp and squid, the other has pork and vegetables, adding that she likes the pork. When I add it to my order, she smiles. “Drop it into boiling water and cook it for five minutes,” she says, holding up five fingers for emphasis.
Back at home, as I ate the bentos while binging Stranger Things’ third season, I realize that within the separate compartments, the meal has as many complex storylines and memorable characters as the show. There are tiny brine shrimp that had been deep-fried and candied. There’s a sweet-and-savory tamago packed with veggies and slippery japchae that I could eat for days. But tastiest of all is the bulgogi, which melts in my mouth so easily I wouldn’t be surprised if it came from a Wagyu cow.
Also tender is the spicy pork, which has been shellacked in a scorching red-pepper paste and paired with raw shredded perilla leaves to counteract the punch. For me on that afternoon, the combination of this meal at home while watching Eleven and her friends battle the Mind Flayer is much more preferable to any concession-stand hot dog and summer blockbuster at the AMC.
Heartful Made, 2009 W. Commonwealth Ave., Ste. C, Fullerton, (714) 732-3084. Open Thurs.-Mon., 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Bentos, $10-$18; kimbap, $4-$7; dumplings, $10.
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.