Over the last year or so I've heard the name Buga pop up on Chowhound whenever Korean Restaurant recommendations were requested. The strange thing was that other than a short negative post on Chowhound mentioning small portions and high prices, the only posts went like...."my Korean friends say...", "I've been told by Korean co-workers...", and such. I also went that route and asked around and got mixed reviews. God knows that I passed the restaurant nearly everyday. Also, a so-so experience at my favorite Korean BBQ Boo Cho, piqued my interest, and I'd decided to pay a visit to the specter that was Buga in the near future. Mills and Sarah please correct any inaccuracies!
Finally two things set a visit to Buga up, Ed from Yuma was making a quick trip into town, and Annie from Green Beans San Diego, noted that she had the best Kalbi she's ever tasted at Buga.
Arriving at the parking lot, I noticed a somewhat odd thing. Buga is semi-attached to a Motel 6, and share the same parking lot. Talk about strange bedfellows, needless to say, there's an interesting crowd milling around in the parking lot. I met Ed at the front door and entered the restaurant, the first thing you'll notice is that Buga is alot smaller than the facade would indicate. Partially due to the sushi bar located in one end of the restaurant, and the table spacing necessary to support placement of large vents for the barbecue. We arrived at 630 pm and were greeted with smiles and seated immediately. After seating we perused the menu and decided on BBQ - Galbi ($20.95) and Bulgogee ($16.95), seemed like natural choices. Soon after the panchan arrived:
I'll spare the description in minutiae, just to say that this was the best panchan I've had in San Diego. Ed must've been enjoying himself, he did what I call the "Ed's delici-yoso dance" a few times. what happens is he closes his eyes, raised his arms to a perpendicular angle, goes "mmmmm", and sways back and forth. I thought the servers were going to call 911.
Here's my favorite panchan:
Also served was a small bowl of deep cooked beef soup with thin slices of mu (daikon). Usually you'd get some watery seaweed soup, or other thin "broth", but this was very good. I'm actually thinking about ordering Kori Gomtang (Ox Tail Soup $14.95), during a winter visit. The grill was prepared (rubbed with onion) and the meat arrived and was cut and placed on the grill by the server, also arriving were the greens and wrappers (dduk & mu). I realized the reason someone had complained about the portion sizes, was that this was a "dduk bossam" style restaurant. The portion sizes at Buga are more than adequate for this style of eating.
The Galbi was excellent, well marinated, and tender. The flavor was very good and balanced, with the sheen of Malt Syrup, and just enough sweetness. When the well marbled Bulgogee arrived, my initial thought was that it was perhaps a bit undermarinated, but my apprehension was unwarranted, the bulgogee was excellent, soft and tender, and just about as perfect as it gets. To indicate the level of service, the Waitress actually made the first two samples of Ed's Galbi "wrap" showing him how to prepare it. As the bulgogee was almost done, the Server came by and cut up the pieces of onion and made sure that all was well. The meal was completed with a palate cleansing cold cinnamon tea with pine nuts (sujeonggwa??).
Well,l I went home and raved about this place. So the Missus and I ended up going back to Buga the following evening. We were actually seated at the same table, and the Waitress remembered me, and was so helpful. Again, on this visit the service was superb, as was the panchan, and the soup, though some of the panchan were different, they were all great.
On the previous night I noticed the Hae Mul Pajun ($14.95), and it looked fabulous, so we ordered it.
Topped with a bit of sauce and some rice this was very tasty. The pancake contained shrimp, mussels, small oysters, and artificial crab, and had a nice savory flavor. It was deceivingly filling. I ordered the Haemul Dolsot Bibim Bap ($12.95), basically seafood and vegetables over rice. This was served in a stone pot, allowing for a wonderful crust to form at the bottom. Eaten with a bit of Gochujang this was a great texture and taste sensation.
During the whole meal we watched a Gentleman eating a metal bowl of Bibim Naengmyun ($9.95) that never seemed to end, he kept eating and eating, that just seemed like an eternal bowl of noodles; note to self, you need to order this. The meal was again finished with the cinnamon tea, and we were on our way. I give Buga my highest recommendation, great attentive service and good food. This is a new one for our rotation.
Some notes on Buga - The service is very good, and in this type of restaurant, the servers have alot to do. It seems that Buga may be a victim of it's own success. On both days, as we left the place was totally packed and the servers almost running from station to station, still providing good service. In fact, we returned a third night and had to leave because of the crowd. This is typical gas BBQ not charcoal, but it's damned good. Lunch specials are available from $7.95 and up. According to a sign Buga uses Coleman Natural Beef short ribs that are 100% pasture fed.
Buga Korean BBQ Restaurant
5580 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92117
Open daily 11 to 11