Garden of Delights
Korea Garden's tempting menu is best tested one dish at a time, and most pass with flying colors
Her eyes got huge. "Too much! Too much!" was our waitress' response to the order. "You will never finish it all!"
"We are pigs and can eat large quantities," was our response. Why do we never listen? We had been studying the menu at Korea Garden for a good 15 minutes, trying to decide what we wanted to feast on. Our small group knew that, with new management, there would be changes to deal with on the menu, and we wanted to get it right. We did.
When you enter Korea Garden (across the street from the Yellow Rose, should you need geographical reference), you see right away that they have moved the sushi bar to the back, which really opened up the space, and the colors are lighter, which makes it seem much less like a cavern. Framed frosted window panels add visual interest. It's a much more pleasant space now.
Similarly, the menu now has color illustrations for all of the sushi offerings, which is important if you're in the mood for some of the more obscurely named custom rolls. We kept it simple, opting for the two-piece nigiri sushi instead. Yellowtail ($4.77) is large slabs of buttery, pristine yellowtail cruising on a mound of perfect rice; as good as any in town. Tuna ($3.77) is impeccably fresh, bright red, and luscious. Eel ($3.77) is rich, lightly glazed, and not too sweet. Their wasabi is properly zippy, and the pickled ginger tastes homemade.
Next to arrive was a Mixed Tempura Platter ($10.95 for five shrimp and seven pieces of vegetable). The tempura batter is nicely done, and the shrimp sweet and fresh. Our only complaint here was that half of the vegetable tempura pieces (we got more than seven) were potato, making for an expensive order of battered french fries (although very delectable french fries). More variety is called for, and the onion, zucchini, and carrot that we did get were great. The Yakimandoo ($4.50) are fried, minced pork-stuffed dumplings with a nice rich, garlicky flavor, boosted by the soy-rice vinegar dipping sauce.
A wealth of banchan appeared. Banchan are the assorted pickled and braised tidbits that accompany a Korean meal. We received a spicy, fermented shredded daikon; sweet, soy-braised potatoes; cold omelet with chives and minced vegetables; fishcake strips in a subtle dressing; an assertive and tangy kimchi; sprouts in sesame oil; and pickled sprouts. All were good, and the offer was made for refills (not that we could have eaten more). Excellent Seafood Soup in spicy broth with udon noodles ($8.95) arrived next: a big bowl loaded with mussels, octopus, small shrimp, shiitake, straw, and cloud ear mushrooms, assorted vegetables, and al dente round wheat noodles. This dish alone could have probably filled us.
Pork Bulgogi ($11.95) materialized as a large mound of thinly sliced pork with onions, garlic, and scallion on a sizzling platter. The flavor is sweet-savory (perhaps a touch too sweet), with a spicy-garlicky finish. It is delicious when eaten over rice, or all by itself. A dab of vinegar solves the sweet balance issue. Squid stir-fry ($8.95) dropped in at roughly the same time, with much shuffling of banchan bowls and platters. The squid is delicious, but slightly chewy. It's loaded with onion and scallion, thin rounds of green chile, and some bell pepper strips. We polished off that platter with a vengeance.
By the time the Kalbi Tang ($8.95) arrived, we were close to a food overdose. Kalbi Tang is a large bowl containing pieces of boneless beef rib, chopped beef rib meat, vegetables, and egg thread, resting on a mound of clear, thin mung-bean noodles. We thought the broth was a little on the weak side, which we remedied by adding some of the dumpling sauce. The rib meat is very tender and flavorful, but the majority of that went home with us in a doggy bag.
There are several dishes that are on the radar for the next visit. The seafood pancake, broiled dried fish, and any of the several dishes containing fresh pork belly really appealed to me, but I couldn't talk the rest of the group into trying them. I'll go back to try those on my own. If you plan on eating a big meal with several courses involved, I'd recommend hanging onto your menu and ordering the items one-by-one a couple of minutes before you want them to appear. Traditionally, all of the elements of a Korean meal are served at once, so the concept of staggering dishes is foreign.
Our waitress was correct: It was too much, but save for a single dish (and bits of another), we almost cleaned our plates and got the gold star award. Korea Garden has survived the changes and emerged as good as before, with an interior that's more welcoming. It's definitely earned a permanent place on our Korean food-fix radar.
6519 N. Lamar, 302-3149