It took me a while to warm up to Korean food, to the chagrin of my many Korean friends. For inexplicable reasons, Korean food seemed to me to be the most foreign and odd of Asian cuisine. I suspect it has something to do with its extreme flavor profiles, everything from the marinades to the pickling. An even more embarrassing and less politically correct reason as to why I eschewed the cuisine might shock you readers: I hate the smell of food.
Not the initial "ooh and ahh" scent of food, rather, I dread prolonged exposure to food smells. Blame it on my formative teenage years working long hours at my parents' Chinese restaurant and coming home smelling like a fryer full of egg rolls, or that my parents felt the need to cook all day long when at home, resulting in my fish-sauce perfumed pajamas. Anyone who has ever enjoyed Korean barbecue knows it comes at a cost, specifically dry-cleaning costs, followed by long soapy showers. Albeit incredibly delicious, Korean barbecue is too much of an anxiety-ridden commitment for me to enjoy. This, by no means, connotes an end to my relationship with Korean food. It's quite the opposite. My travels to cities with a large Korean demographic, an obsession with Super H Mart, and most significantly, the spurring on by all my fed-up Korean peeps created a growing curiosity within me. I suddenly had nonstop cravings for Korean food. Being a frequenter of Dallas's Koreatown, I felt resentful if I drove by a restaurant I had yet to try. It was time to call in the reinforcements.
My typical idea of a Korean fix is Carrolton's Super H Mart and its surrounding restaurants, such as Omi or To Dam Gol Tofu House. My Korean and fellow food enthusiast friend Lisa insists, however, that Seoul Garden is the best Korean restaurant in DFW. Although I had yet to try the place, upon Lisa's enthusiastic review, I once suggested the restaurant to a visiting friend from Houston who was searching for Korean barbecue. After dinner with her bosses, she called immediately, profusely thanking me for what they all agreed was one of the best meals of their lives. I couldn't exactly take credit for it. Actually, I was a bit shocked.
Seoul Garden is tucked behind a gas station off of Royal Lane in K-Town. Talk about judging a book by its cover; the red block-lettered sign and window paint on the exterior of the restaurant does an incredible injustice to the sleek, beautiful, and Zen-like interior.
Knowing about both my fear of smells and my tight budget, Lisa suggested we try Seoul Garden's daily lunch special. The restaurant offers a long list and wide variety on the lunch menu, many for less than $10. As Lisa patiently explained away about clam dishes and meat soups, I, guiltily, knew already what I wanted. A rookie decision on my part, but I love bibimbap. I can't help myself. I knew Lisa would be disappointed with my unadventurous pick, since bibimbap is essentially Korean food 101. However, I belong in that 95th percentile of Asian people who love all things rice. Lisa and I compromised. She would order something I've never tried before, and I would get my beloved bibimbap.
Seoul Garden's lunch serving of the popular rice dish is a san chae dolsot bibimbap, or stone bowl with beef and veggies on rice. I love this dish for so many reasons:
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A garden variety of fresh julienned vegetables? Check. Sweet garlicky slices of beef? Check. Crisped brown rice on the edges of the stone bowl? Check. An egg with runny yolk? Check. Loads of Gochujang (a red, sweet, and spicy Korean chili paste condiment)? Check. All ingredients beautifully arranged in one bowl? Check!
Besides all that goodness, I had an ulterior motive for ordering a rice dish. A delightful tradition amongst almost all Korean restaurants is the serving of banchan, an array of small side plates ranging from the familiar, kimchi, to the less familiar (at least to me) namul. These come out before the entrees arrive and can be eaten alone or can be eaten with rice. Rice and banchan served as the catalyst for my love affair with Korean food. It combines two of my favorite things -- rice and trying little bits from several dishes. After sampling only a few bites of Seoul Garden's banchan offerings, I can safely say that the restaurant had some of the best I've ever had. I could not stop picking at the various types of fermented vegetables, marinated tofus and seasoned fish.
After telling Lisa about a Korean soup I had tried and liked, Lisa ordered yukejang for me to sample. Yukejang is a beef based soup with vegetables, meat and noodles floating in a daunting atomic red broth. To say that the broth is spicy would be an understatement. Lisa, a seasoned veteran of spicy foods, rolled her eyes as I gulped glass after glass of water. What she didn't realize was that I immensely enjoyed the spicy heat in a very sadomasochistic kind of way. The rich broth coated my mouth with layers of flavors. On top of all the beautiful flavors, the heat was like an extra sensation. I could have sworn that the broth tastes as if it has some seafood stock in it, but Lisa insists it is only beef.
We left Seoul Garden full and happy, but alas, smelly. While there are private grilling tables in the restaurant, the intense smell of cooking meat is inescapable. This won't stop me from a revisit, but I might be wearing attire that I haven't worn since 1997. I'll be the girl in the corner with an X-Files T-shirt on, eating rice.