Cafe Reviews

Savory Seoul

I was in Tempe last week, sitting in a cafe and flipping through my recent purchase from a nearby bookshop of a rare copy of Valentine Penrose's The Bloody Countess: The Atrocities of Erzsebet Bathory, when a bizarre desire took hold of me. Those of you familiar with this 16th-century Hungarian aristocrat will know that among her unspeakable crimes were baths she took in the blood of slain virgins, a ritual she apparently believed would keep her eternally young.

Of course, my own newfound immersion fetish gives the good Countess' abhorrent ablutions a decidedly culinary twist. Rather than soak in the life fluid of the chaste, I'd much prefer a tub full of marinated sirloin slices, fresh from the tabletop grill of a Korean barbecue. My beef bath would leave my flesh redolent of the savory-sweet fragrance of cow flesh. And though I doubt it would increase my life span, it would most definitely leave me in a state of prolonged, quivering ecstasy.

Sadly, such daydreams are unlikely to be realized because of logistics and lack of funds. Still, it left me hankering after that bovine cologne I acquire only by preparing my own beef at one of those Korean eateries, the kind I'm most familiar with from my time in Gotham and La-la Land. Thus inspired, I hightailed it to my new favorite chow palace, Seoul Garden Korean BBQ Restaurant, near Rural Road and Apache Boulevard. The establishment exists in the same pointy-roofed structure that was formerly home to Korean Garden, one of the Valley's oldest Korean restaurants, having been in operation for more than a decade. Three months ago, the enchanting Sarah Kang acquired the barbecue house, and, with the aid of her charming sister Missy, set about improving upon the service and the food.

As I never visited Korean Garden, I'm not able to remark upon how Seoul Garden differs from its predecessor, though Kang tells me that the basic setup of one room divided in half with blond-wood barbecue tables on each side has remained the same. The interior is pale yellow, and Kang is slowly decorating it to suit herself. On the walls are hung various Korean knickknacks as well as watercolors of vermilion carp and Korean women in traditional dress. Overall, the place is homey and functional, with its steel chimneys hanging over the tables to suck up the smoke. Nothing wrong with form following function in this case, since the best Korean spot in L.A., Soot Bull Jeep, basically consists of four brick walls and some brass fixtures left over from the previous tenant.

Occasionally, I get flak from the veg-heads out there who say I'm overly obsessed with carnivorous consumption. Alas, the granola munchers will be none too pleased with this review. For though there's a lot of produce used in Korean cuisine, Koreans are meat maniacs, and one of their greatest contributions to the global menu is bulgogi beef, marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, garlic, and sometimes fruit, like apples and pears, so there's a sweetness to the meat. You can have the house prepare it for you, but all the fun's to be had from doing it yourself over a hot flame, wrapping it in a sheaf of red-leaf lettuce, adding some kimchee, some soy bean paste, maybe some rice, and any of the seven or eight items brought to you in little white dishes by your server, then popping it in ye ole oral orifice.

Those little dishes dazzle the eye and the taste buds, and it's always a treat to see what kinds you'll get with your barbecue. Some are pretty standard, like the kimchee and the bean sprouts, but you might also get sweet black beans, squash with tiny shrimp, cubes of sweet potato or yam cake with seaweed, and thinly sliced bamboo shoots encrusted with chili paste. I'd compare this array of sights and tastes to Middle Eastern mezze, where one is overwhelmed by a variety of small plates, their contents naturally being quite different from this mini-Korean smorgasbord.

A jumbo-size bottle of the Korean beer OB (which stands for Oriental Brewery) and a bottle of Jin Ro brand soju (that distilled Korean spirit made mostly these days from sweet potatoes) help aid the alimentary progress of the thin sirloin strips rolled in and with veggies. You can also choose from a variety of other grillable viands such as dae-ji bulgogi, or pork coated in spicy barbecue sauce, Korean short ribs known as galbi, and dak bulgogi, seasoned barbecued chicken. At Seoul Garden, I particularly enjoyed the heu so-geum gui, thin slices of cow tongue that curl when you cook them and taste sort of like chicken gizzards.

For additional sides, I like to order a savory Korean seafood pancake, still sizzling when brought to you, and stuffed generously with shrimp, scallops, mussels and scallions. Also, a heaping plate of duk-bok-gi, glutinous rice cake ladyfingers drowned in a thick chili sauce, will light a fire in your belly that only another bottle of OB will put out. I'm told duk-bok-gi is quite popular with young Korean adults, and experiencing firsthand how well it facilitates drinking, I can certainly believe it.

I almost always request a big bowl of bibimbap, sort of an egg, beef and vegetable salad, with bamboo shoots, and a mishmash of other ingredients that comes in a stone pot. It's served with all of the portions such as the fried egg and the lettuce not yet mixed together. You squeeze out a nice dollop of reddish-brown gochujang, a red pepper paste that comes in a plastic condiment bottle, stir everything together, then add the mixture to your rice. Reminds me of my first visit to Japan, which I took on a Korean Air flight, where prim and proper Korean stewardesses in white gloves handed out bowls of bibimbap for dinner.

In general, I'd say the Korean BBQ to be had at Seoul Garden is comparable to the eateries you'll find in the Koreatowns of America's major metropolises. It's not a fancy place, but it's very clean, the service is friendly and efficient, and I can promise you that most Korean restaurants in L.A. and New York are not fancy, either. Moreover, the menu is varied enough that I'll be going back for the traditional clay pot dishes, the casseroles, soups and baked fish, and, of course, that bulgogi, which leaves my hands smelling like I've used the sirloin as my serviette. Not exactly a soak in a barrel o' steak, I suppose, but it'll do in a pinch.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons