Here’s how you can find out if you’re in a Korean Chinese restaurant: Look for the jjamppong and the jajangmyeon. Jjamppong (spicy seafood noodle soup in a red-chile hell broth) and jajangmyeon (noodles smothered in an inky-black sauce made of soybean paste and onions) are the Korean Chinese bellwether dishes that, when found, should tell you to forget about the kung pao chicken and egg-drop soup. And if the menu doesn’t specifically spell them out as such, just look around: jjamppong and jajangmyeon will still be what the Koreans in the crowd slurp at some of OC’s oldest Korean Chinese restaurants, including Golden China in Tustin and Peking Gourmet in Garden Grove.
But at Hong Kong Banjum, everyone’s having jjamppong and jajangmyeon. There’s no avoiding them. The two dishes constitute more than half the menu. Besides those, there are only two other items: bokkeummyeon and tangsuyuk, the Korean Chinese take on chow mein and sweet-and-sour pork. So if you’re not keen on eating any of it at Hong Kong Banjum, that’s equivalent to wanting a hot dog at In-N-Out: You’re in the wrong place.
Hong Kong Banjum is a no-frills kitchen with no-frills cashiers whose job is to take your money and yell out your number when the food is ready. If you’re at the Fullerton branch, which is tucked in a hidden corner inside AR Mart, you expect this. But even if you find yourself at Paik’s Noodle—which is the name the Buena Park branch of Hong Kong Banjum operates under—it’s the same setup. Despite the well-lit dining room, Paik’s Noodle is still a pay-at-the-counter-bus-your-own-table operation.
No matter which Hong Kong Banjum you end up in, there will be a window through which you can stare at the wok cooks face-to-face. It’s here that you can witness them building your jjamppong from scratch, beginning with matchsticks of pork and squid tossed quickly to cook, then an avalanche of shredded cabbage and carrots, and finally, a transfer into a second wok, where it’s all seared with a chile-imbued red broth and combined with the noodles.
And it’s this searing that’s the secret. It gives the bowls of jjamppong at Hong Kong Banjum an elusive flavor that only a superheated, well-seasoned wok can impart—an attribute as important to the meal as the chewiness of the wheat-based noodles and the sweat-inducing nature of the broth. In fact, the flavor of the wok is so elusive that some bowls of jjamppong I’ve had at Hong Kong Banjum had only a little of it, while others had it in spades. But whatever bowl fate will deal for you, the jjamppong should be the first, if the only, thing you order. A serving retails for $5.99 at the Fullerton branch (it’s $6.99 at Buena Park), and it has enough carbohydrates to fuel two Olympic swimmers and enough soup to bathe a newborn.
Quantity, by the way, is the one prevailing attribute all dishes at Hong Kong Banjum have in common. I’ve been able to make three meals out of the single order of bokkeummyeon—a noodle stir-fry full of green beans, pork, shrimp and squid—that I took home last weekend. And on one visit, three friends and I realized quickly that we overordered when each of us picked out a dish from the menu. At Hong Kong Banjum, four dishes for four people is two dishes too many.
If you go with your own group, make sure one of you orders the tangsuyuk: fingers of pork dipped in a cornstarch batter, then deep-fried and doused with a sweet, vinegary concoction made gloppy with a ton more cornstarch. I should tell you that when you order tangsuyuk, asking for the sauce on the side is a good idea, especially if you don’t want to jeopardize the crispness for what will inevitably become tomorrow’s leftovers.
You can probably skip the jajangmyeon at Hong Kong Banjum, though. Since the kitchen staff never seems to douse enough of the jet-black bean sauce to answer the massive amount of noodles they put in the bowl, the last one I had was bland—something I never thought I’d say about jajangmyeon. Perhaps the jajangbap—a dish that pairs the same black bean sauce with rice and a big omelet—is better.
Hong Kong Banjum also, for some reason, offers an option to order the jjamppong noodle soup with rice on the side, which seems like a lot of carbs, even for an Olympic swimmer. But no matter: It’s nothing three days of leftovers can’t fix, you know?
Hong Kong Banjum, 1701 W. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 773-5050. Open daily, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 4-9 p.m. Meal for two, $7-$20, food only. No alcohol.