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Little Shanghai doesn't set off paroxysms of gastronomic delight, just nods of quiet appreciation. It's steady, not dazzling. But diners who've had it with hit-and-miss, one-night, Chinese-food stands may find it the place to settle down in a comfortable relationship.
Korean Garden, 1324 South Rural, Tempe, 967-1133. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
4017 E. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Region: East Phoenix
Korean food doesn't have nearly the crowd appeal of other popular Asian cuisines. Compared with Chinese fare, it lacks complexity; compared with Japanese specialties, it lacks delicacy; compared with Thai dishes, it lacks variety.
But its more straightforward qualities should be an asset, at least in America. That's because Koreans share our love of beef, particularly beef cooked up over a charcoal-fired grill.
Korean Garden is sparely decorated. A few Asian prints, an old wooden chest and wood latticework in the windows furnish most of the adornment.
The room is divided into two sections that have nothing to do with cigarettes, but everything to do with lighting up. One area features tables with built-in grills for do-it-yourself barbecuing; the other is for wimps. You definitely want to be where the sizzle is. The side effects from this sort of secondhand smoke are easy to take.
Unlike most Oriental restaurant appetizers, Korean Garden's are actually worth ordering. Mandu tuigim--fried meat and vegetable dumplings--are just a Korean version of pot stickers, but they're much more flavorful than those you get at most chop suey houses.
Bindae duk, though, is uniquely Korean: It's a wonderful, thick-textured, bean pancake, flecked with scallions and browned in a skillet.
Both starters go well with OB (pronounced oh-bee), a Korean beer highly touted by my friend Michael. A martial-arts expert, he promised to dazzle us with his extraordinary command of the language. It turns out he knew exactly ten Korean sentences: "Give me one OB beer," "Give me two OB beers," and so on, all the way up to ten.
The centerpiece of dinner is the barbecued meat, and we ordered it two different ways.
Galbee are bone-in short ribs, and bul gogi are paper-thin slices of beef. The kitchen marinates them both in a highly seasoned (but not spicy hot) soy mixture, then brings the meat out, ready to cook at the table. Patrons can't grumble if the meat isn't cooked to their specifications.
(Novices should watch out for the glowing coals, recessed in the center of the table. They give off plenty of heat, although the noisy, hardworking fan above sucks off most of it, along with most tableside conversation.)
Gnaw the galbee like you would any barbecued ribs. Wrap up the bul gogi in lettuce fronds. There's a zippy, bean-paste sauce for dipping, too.
Serious carnivores expecting massive platefuls of beef on the hoof may be disappointed. The portions look like something devised by the American Beef Council, whose ads celebrate the nutritional wonders of beef, as long as it's dished up in three-ounce servings. Like most cultures except ours, the Koreans are more into taste than volume.
To fill in the cracks, there are rice and a half-dozen varieties of pickled vegetables. They're surprisingly mild, a calculated move by a concerned kitchen, since red-hot kimchee can launch the uninitiated into an altered state quicker than a Timothy Leary chemical compound. The small dishes of cabbage, radish, potatoes, lettuce, bean sprouts and seaweed add an exotic touch, and keep diners from ruminating about one-pound T-bones.
If you didn't come here to do your own barbecuing, Korean Garden also serves up plenty of ready-to-eat fare. Jap chae is an outstanding choice, a filling platter of thin, glass noodles smothered with scallions and lots of meltingly tender strips of beef.
And sae woo bokum features a generous portion of nine meaty shrimp and vegetables in an offbeat, garlic-heavy sauce.
The Land of the Morning Sun may be unfamiliar to residents of the Valley of the Perpetual Sun, but its cuisine, centered on beef, garlic, scallions, soy, ginger and pepper, won't seem nearly as foreign. If moo shu pork, tempura and Thai chicken are starting to get old, Korean Garden just might broaden your horizons.