Stop driving to Berkeley or Santa Clara for the best Korean food.
Mixed Grain, a new Korean grill and bibimbop house in Walnut Creek, is the complete package. From a large menu of authentic offerings to quick service and the freshest of ingredients, Mixed Grain satisfies bibimbop connoisseurs while engaging diners new to the food-coma-inducing rice bowls.
Barbecued beef short ribs that aren't tough and dripping with grease. Crisp, vibrant vegetables. Fresh, hot stew served minutes after you order it.
Even the kid's meal impressed. Such a rare thing in the restaurant world.
I'm giving Mixed Grain four stars because, compared to other casual Korean restaurants, there was nothing lacking or subpar in my dining experience -- from the service, which was unusually fast, to the portions, taste, quality, preparation and presentation of the food. You might pay a few dollars more than you're used to for casual Korean, but the reasons are obvious.
Mixed Grain is owned and operated by the folks behind foodie-loved Bowl'd (Albany) and Spoon (Berkeley). If you read the 500 combined Yelp reviews for those restaurants, you'll see that the owners know what they're doing.
Lucky for us, Mixed Grain's menu is the same. It starts with a collection of tasty appetizers and small plates, like savory jun pancakes ($6-$8), mondoo dumplings ($6), fantastically chewy stir-fried glass noodles called Veggie Jhap Chae ($8; available gluten-free for an extra $2) and my favorite, deep-fried spicy Chicken Wings ($8), which arrive crunchy and piping hot (they come nonspicy as well). Of the savory pancakes, we liked the Crab Cake ($8), lightly pan-fried crab meat, shrimp, egg and green onion with a sweet dipping sauce. Yum.
The true centerpiece of the cuisine, however, and what people started waiting in line for around 7:30 on our Saturday night visit, was the Bibimbop ($12), a rice bowl topped with vegetables like spinach, mushrooms, julienne carrots and bean sprouts, plus your choice of protein (beef, chicken, spicy pork, beef short ribs, tofu, mung bean pancake or salmon) and an over-easy egg. The dish can be made gluten-free without the sauce.
We paid $2 more for the Sizzling Works, or Dolsot Bibimbop ($14), which is cooked in a hot stone bowl to achieve a crispy rice shell akin to Persian tahdig. When constructing your bibimbop, opt for the mixed grain rice over plain white rice. Mixed grain is a combination of sweet wild rice, brown rice, barley and red wild rice. It's heartier, and the textures, colors and flavors enhance the overall dish.
If you're new to the ritual, don't fret. I watched a patient server help a newbie mix her bibimbop, adding spicy chili paste to achieve the customer's desired heat and breaking and swirling in the egg for her. He also walked her through the eight complementary banchan -- traditional side dishes such as kimchee, sesame-oiled bean sprouts, seaweed salad, chewy white fish cakes and sticky-sweet fried potatoes. Mixed Grain's are particularly fresh.
From the grill, and to pair with all the banchan, we ordered the Spicy Pork ($14; other choices include thinly sliced beef, chicken or mackerel), which arrived hot and trimmed of excess fat on a bed of steamed cabbage. The marinade provided just the right dose of flavor.
Vegetarians will rejoice in the plethora of options, but the standout for me was the silky, savory Soft Tofu Stew ($12) or soondooboo, with portobello mushrooms. We added pot stickers for $2, and it made for a delightfully satisfying meal.
Even our toddler was pleased. The Kid's Rice Bowl ($6) is the liveliest and most nutritionally balanced restaurant kid's meal in my (albeit short) two years as a parent. It came on a fun froggy plate and featured a choice of chicken, beef or tofu with shredded potatoes, mandolined mini cucumbers, strawberry wedges, rice and radish soup. My kid is 2 and liked it. Does the chef do house calls?
" * * * *
FOOD: * * * *
AMBIENCE: * * * *
SERVICE: * * * *
WHERE: 1546 Bonanza St., Walnut Creek
CONTACT: 925-938-5959; www.mixedgrain.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
VEGETARIAN: Try the Soft Tofu Stew with mushroom and mixed grain rice.
Korean beer, soju cocktails
NOISE LEVEL: Loud
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Kid's Rice Bowl ($6) comes with shredded potatoes, toasted seaweed, radish soup, strawberries, cucumbers and choice of beef, chicken or tofu. A parent's dream.
PLUSES: Veggies are fresh. Meat isn't greasy. Could this be healthy Korean food?
MINUSES: Line forms on weekend nights.
DATE OPENED: January
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40