Have you ever heard of the Korean dish called budae jjigae—better known as “army base stew”? It’s a big cauldron of broth made brick-red with gochujang, pepper flakes and kimchi—typical ingredients in a Korean soup. But when you dig in, you start finding SPAM, hot dogs and ham instead of, well, anything that’s actually Korean.
The origins of the dish, of course, can be traced back to a particular Korean town during the Korean War. When food was scarce, the people of Uijeongbu used the supplies made available to them by nearby U.S. Army bases. Out of necessity, they created budae jjigae from whatever they could get. In so doing, they inadvertently invented what’s arguably the first Asian foodie fusion dish. But just as with SPAM musubi in Hawaii, the mash-up became popular and ingrained in the culture. These days, if you go to Uijeongbu, you’ll find scores of restaurants specializing in the dish, the wafting scent of kimchi and hot dogs mixing in the air.
Though I’m an avowed lover of SPAM, I still had some misgivings. I avoided ordering the dish whenever I saw it on a menu. The excuse I had was that there was always something else more compelling to eat—and with less luncheon meat involved. But in addition to that, ordering budae jjigae needs buy-in from at least three other people. Everywhere I saw it, budae jjigae was served family-style in a big pot and cost nearly $30.
When I saw the dish being ordered at every table at the new Tani in Tustin, I realized I couldn’t ignore it any longer. To join the “army base stew” ranks with me, I enlisted a few friends. Half of them were budae jjigae virgins, but the other half were connoisseurs. They were there to guide us through the terrain.
Both groups oohed and ahhed when the pot came out, gurgling on a lit camp stove set to simmer. We smelled the fumes coming off the soup. It was the unmistakable aroma of ballpark hot dogs and stinging red pepper. On top of it all was a square of uncooked ramen that we pushed down into the liquid to soften. We ate the noodles first, but consuming the rest of the soup required bowls of rice—lots of rice.
The rice is not optional. The soup is too caustic and spicy to eat by itself. You need the rice as a buffer. But as we spooned ladle after ladle of the luncheon-meat brew into our bowls, we discovered what the people of Uijeongbu did more than a half-century ago: the sharp, sweet and spicy funk of the Korean broth was a perfect foil to the soft and salty SPAM. In fact, everything that wasn’t Korean—the bologna, the fat-rimmed scraps of ham, the frankfurters sliced on the bias—became the best versions of themselves. This was a great dish: filling, satisfying, unexpected.
The budae jjigae is the only thing you need to order at Tani. Actually, it’s probably the only thing you should order there. Tani serves a few sushi rolls, holdovers from its previous incarnation as Monster Sushi, an all-you-can-eat sushi concept, but I’ve not yet had any rolls that weren’t disappointing. On the first few I ordered on one visit, the rice was dried up. A roll I tried on a different day seemed to be missing a few ingredients the menu said it contained.
And though Tani advertises its fried-chicken-and-Cass-beer combos in big posters and at very reasonable prices, I found the fried chicken was just fried chicken. The powdery-crust-covered pieces are hacked into smaller chunks apt for sharing, but with the high benchmarks of fried chicken now set by the Korean-style masters such as Krave and Love Letter, Tani’s hens are stuck at the level of American supermarket deli.
Tani is still adjusting its menu. Korean bar staples such as corn cheese have been crossed off, but samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup)—which felt out of place among a menu filled with late-night munchies meant for eating accompanied by oceans of soju—is still offered. And though Tani advertises a beef tonkatsu, it was unavailable the two times I asked; in its stead, the staff offered me chicken or pork.
A lot of substitutions occurred without warning when I ordered the mixed skewers. The picture on the menu promised a dozen kushiyaki-style sticks of meat that included steak and shrimp, but our order had only seven. Worse, five of the sticks were composed of chewy intestines, funky offal and other mystery meats we failed to identify, let alone swallow. It was then that we decided that—as far as mystery meat goes—we were better off sticking with the SPAM.
Tani, 13832 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 573-2855. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-11:30 p.m.; Sun., 3-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$50, food only. Beer, wine and soju.
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.