On the Table: Tasty dishes make up for Korea Garden's unassuming looks
January 24, 2013 5:00 AM
Dol sot bi bim bap at Korea Garden in Oakland.
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The restaurant looks less than inviting. Tucked on a side street in South Oakland, across from a Mexican grocery and next to a hookah lounge, the faded sign reads Korea Garden Restaurant. It has been open since 2001, yet many Pittsburghers may be unaware such an interesting restaurant resides here.
I sought out Korea Garden because of a craving for authentic Korean cuisine. Enthusiasts had recommended it as a favorite destination in the city.
Inside, the dining room looks like a waiting area of a '70s office, only cheered with bright lighting and blond furniture. But patrons aren't here for the space. They've arrived for the food, joined by an array of students, couples and Asian families with small children in tow.
This spartan restaurant offers an array of authentic Korean fare to seduce regulars and newcomers.
Fried pork dumplings; dol sot bi bim bap (rice in a sizzling stone pot); hae mul pa jun (seafood and vegetable pancakes); bul go gi (marinated beef); bo ssam (sliced pork).
Bi bim bap $10.95-$14.95; seafood $17.95-$19.95; beef and pork $17.95-$25.95; hot pots $34.95-$36.95.
No bar, beer and wine, dining room, street parking, credit cards.
During my several visits to Korea Garden, few customers appeared uninitiated. Perhaps that's because elements of Korean cuisine have become familiar in the past few years.
This is partly because of the national influence of Los Angeles' Kogi Taco Truck chef Roy Choi, who has made a killing by fusing Mexican tacos with Korean preparations since 2008.
In particular, Mr. Choi mainstreamed funky fermented kimchi as an ingredient fit for a foot truck pioneer. The result has been that pickled, spicy cabbage has become common atop tacos and hot dogs at joints around the country.
Kimchi varieties are as diverse as Italian meat sauces. Family recipes are often shrouded in secrecy. Within an Asian grocery one can find employees tending to vats of it, with an array of selections in tied baggies aligning shelves.
But it's not just this condiment that makes the dishes at Korea Garden compelling. Order some savory tea and prepare for a culinary journey as conservative or adventurous as desired.
This journey does not involve the ritual of table-side barbecue, where servers cook meat on a table-top grill and clothing absorbs the scent of cooked meats.
Instead it's the comfort of home-style cooking that starts with an array of banchan -- small side dishes. A server stacks between her fingers little plates of bean sprouts in sesame oil, garlic eggplant, seaweed greens or mushrooms as she brings them to the table. Fish cakes may make an appearance, next to a tangle of cold sweet potato noodles. These gratis plates offer a parade of flavors to enjoy before dishes arrive or to add as garnishes.
Diners may wish to start the meal with fried pork dumplings ($8.95), a sleeve of pockets filled with seasoned ground meat that's dry without ssamjang, a vinegar and soy dipping sauce.
More adventurous diners will appreciate hae mul pa jun -- seafood and vegetable pancakes ($14.95). Often a late-night food fit to absorb booze, they're served here as an appetizer. A round layered with meaty shrimp and squid contrasts with the sharpness of green onion. Coated with a sheen of oil, these pancakes satiate like a guilty pleasure.
"Be careful. The bowl is hot," warned the server as she delivered dol sot bi bim bap ($14.95). Rice crackled and popped as it caramelized at the bottom of the stone bowl. Known as socarrat in Spanish cooking, the crunchy bits of rice should be coveted.
In the meantime, break the yolk of the fried egg garnish so it dresses carrots, seaweed and bean sprouts. Mix ingredients in white rice and taste. Decide whether a preference is hotter or sweeter or saltier and adjust accordingly with such condiments as doenjang -- fermented soybean -- or gochujang -- red chili paste. For more pungent flavor, try the arl bap ($15.95) topped with a plethora of kimchi and salty orange roe.
A crowd pleasing dish is bulgogi, pan-seared strips seasoned with a mild soy sauce ($16.95). But above all, fans of pork should not miss the bo ssam ($26.95), a dish popularized by Momofuku's David Chang and declared "The Bo Ssam Miracle" in an article by former New York Times dining critic Sam Sifton.
On the menu, bo ssam is dubiously described as "boiled sliced pork dish with undone kimchi, cabbage and oysters." Yet it is among the most memorable entrees, as diners dollop cabbage leaves with rice, strings of falling-apart pork shoulder, green onions, kimchi and hot or sweet condiments. Add oysters for salty bliss.
Service here is fastidious if tight-lipped. Among most of the staff, English is a foreign language, which may mean menu questions will not be addressed.
As a table works its way through this dish, don't be surprised to hear a commotion from upstairs.
"I heard a strange wailing," a friend said of his visit punctuated by singing from the karaoke room.
Reserve energy for such festivities if so inclined. But take note: The karaoke room is reservation only and requires patrons to order food and beer.
On return visits, I'll likely decline the spectacle as I polish off the delicious bo saam instead.