Korean cuisine hasn't yet penetrated American food culture in the same way that Chinese food or Thai food have. One positive consequence of its isolation is that while Korean food in America has developed and evolved, it has continued to respond to Korean tastes, rather than just to conceptions of American tastes.
Korea Garden opened seven years ago, and while it has a devoted following that consists of Korean food-lovers of all kinds, it has remained a relatively well-kept secret. The storefront is small and quite unprepossessing, but inside you'll find a large, open room with plaster walls and wooden tables with a single flower inset in the middle of the table. The total lack of decoration is one indication that this restaurant takes food very seriously.
Korean food is usually served in one course, and rather than eating one dish at a time, diners generally graze, sharing all of the food among the table and alternating between banchan (or panchan) and other dishes.
2 stars = Very good
414 Semple St.
- Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
- Basics: Korean food supplemented by a few Japanese-Korean options as well as a lengthy menu of Korean-Chinese dishes. Expect highly seasoned, often spicy, cuisine. Though there are many healthy options, this restaurant is not a good choice for vegetarians.
- Recommended dishes: Bi bim bap, spicy tofu stew, stir fried squid, octopus or spicy pork and vegetables, seafood and vegetable pancake, short tipped grilled beef ribs, thinly sliced beef marinated in a light sweet soy sauce, seafood hot pot.
- Prices: Korean Dishes, $9.95-38.95; Japanese dishes (bento box style) $9.95-14.95; Chinese dishes, $5.95-52.95.
- Summary: Park on street (parking can be difficult); credit cards accepted; reservations for parties of six or more. Karaoke available on second floor for a minimum of five people.
- Noise level: Quiet.
Banchan are the Korean equivalent of a breadbasket, small side dishes served free with the meal. They almost always include several varieties of kimchi, vegetables that have been fermented in a brine that often includes some combination of ginger, garlic, scallions, chile peppers, and a type of seafood such as oysters or anchovies. Kimchi is remarkable for its distinctive taste, which many consider to be almost addictive, as well as for its healthfulness -- kimchi is very high in Vitamin C and carotene, as well as in the beneficial lactic acid bacteria found in yogurt.
At Korea Garden, traditional kimchi of napa cabbage with red pepper sauce is generally served, along with three or more other kinds. Choices might include seaweed and lightly pickled cucumber in a sweet, soy-based brown sauce; bean sprouts in red pepper sauce, marinated chewy fried tofu, or rice cakes (oblong disks with a chewy texture made from glutenous rice flour and water) in red pepper sauce.
Many Koreans judge the quality of a meal by the number and variety of banchan, but if you've been craving Korean food, you'll be equally excited by the dishes on the menu.
If you've heard of only one Korean specialty, it is likely to be Bi Bim Bap ($9.95-12.95). One of the most welcoming sounds in the world must be the sizzling song of the rice as its edges crisp up in the hot stone bowl that is carried to your table (be sure to order it in a stone bowl; the difference is well worth a few extra dollars). Though there are as many varieties of bi bim bap as there are tables where Korean food is eaten, Korea Garden's is notable for its visual as well as edible appeal. Orange shredded carrots, bright green sauteed spinach, red-green cabbage kimchi, brown ground beef and the bright yellow yolk of a fried egg stand out in relief against the white background of the rice. Stir the egg into the rice quickly, before the yolk cooks, and it will dress the dish in a rich, gold coating. For another flavor and some heat, add a squirt of Go chu jang, a fermented hot pepper paste, from the red bottle on the table.
Another rice dish, also offered in a stone pot, is garnished with fish eggs, kimchi and a fried egg. This dish is intensely salty, but intentionally so, and the contrast between the crunch of the noo roong ji -- the crust of rice that forms at the bottom of the pot -- and the crisp pop of the roe is spectacular.
Hae Mul Pa Jun, crispy flour seafood and vegetable pancake ($12.95), works well as an appetizer, since the pancake is sliced into six pieces. Somewhat similar to a scallion pancake, but less greasy, this savory pancake is stuffed with grated or chopped seafood and vegetables including shrimp, squid, zucchini, carrots and scallions. The pancake is served on a hot stone platter so it stays warm and crispy as you eat each piece. Make a dipping sauce by mixing together the vinegar and soy sauce on the table.
A basic stir-fried dish offered with a choice of pork ($15.95), squid ($15.95), or octopus ($16.95) seems relatively straightforward, especially as all three dishes came with the same sweet-salty-spicy sauce, which tasted of both doenjang (fermented soybean paste) and gochujang (red chile paste), two of the most important flavoring components of Korean cuisine. But the subtle adjustments made to each dish based on the choice of protein lead to three different dishes, each tremendously delicious.
Though you won't find "Korean barbecue" where meat is grilled at the table, you can order bulgogi, thin strips of beef marinated in a light sweet soy sauce with a hint of fruit used to tenderize the meat (probably kiwi or asian pear). This dish was delicious, but la gal bi, grilled beef ribs, are even better, as the bones impart more flavor.
Bi bim bap, stir-fried vegetables and pork, and bulgogi are instantly accessible to initiates to Korean food, but some of the best dishes may take a little more experience to appreciate. When ordered, hot pot soups usually take pride of place at Korean restaurants and this one is no exception. The spicy seafood hot pot had a savory, miso-like broth and was almost brimming over with chunks of monkfish, whole shrimp, clams, small scallops, fish cake, tofu and exotic vegetables. The combination of the rich taste of fermented soybean, the cool salinity of the seafood and a noticeable heat create an intense, unique flavor.
Though there is a decided emphasis on the more traditional Korean offerings, Korea Garden's menu also includes a large selection of Korean-style Chinese food and a smaller section of Korean-Japanese food. For the most part, these offerings do not seem designed to offer an alternative to guests who don't like Korean food, but rather are themselves a draw for the Korean community.
Korea Garden is the rare restaurant where it is possible to get a culinary education and a sensational meal at the same time.
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1198.