Restaurant Reviews

Seoul Garden Rewards Adventurous Diners

Over the nearly 20 years Seoul Garden has been open in Korea town, the waiters and waitresses have seen their share of customers pushing unfamiliar dishes around with chopsticks. Non-Korean customers who order a dish with raw seafood or a funky, fermented ingredient will likely be met by an awkward pause that seems to ask, "Are you sure you're going to like that?"

That is, unless you're lucky enough to have a dining partner who can confidently order in Korean. My table won our server over with a request for extra ssamjang. The chunky soy-based condiment must sit idle at some tables, but at ours, it was slathered with enthusiasm over every edible surface that needed a little extra savory and heat. The special request, along with perfectly pronounced chadolbaegi (thinly sliced brisket) and samgyeopsal (thinly sliced pork belly), guaranteed that our server recognized us on our next visit and gave us tips on things to try we might otherwise have overlooked. And we never ran out of ssamjang.

A guide isn't necessary to enjoy a meal at Seoul Garden, but one can help diners avoid suffering through another recommendation for bibimbop. Hint: If your server tells you that you might not like a dish, you're likely considering one of the most interesting and flavorful.

Another server was concerned about our taste for raw oysters, but we insisted on ordering the doeji bossam anyway. That's how we happened upon a massive plate of steamed pork belly slices flanked by spicy daikon kimchi and wilted cabbage leaves. You'll find the family-style dish on the cultural section of the menu, along with a handful of other plates that may draw a warning from your server. The mound of shucked oysters added a perfectly cool, metallic brine to each pork-filled wrap.

If you want to keep dinner relatively simple with Korean barbecue, Seoul Garden is a good place to do that too. Tables tucked into booths around the perimeter of the dining room have ventilated wells in the center that hold red-hot coals for grilling thin slices of meat, unlike most Korean barbecue restaurants, which use gas. Order a cut of meat that's not marinated at Seoul Garden and you'll have a chance of infusing your meal with the subtle smoke of charcoal. The marinated meats, including bulgolgi, pack more flavor initially, but the sugar in the marinade will quickly burn, overwhelming any subtleties.

When your server arrives with scissors or tongs in hand, politely wave him off and say you'd like to cook your own meal. Employees tend to crowd the grill, resulting in meat that simmers or steams more than it sears. Be patient and let the metal plate suspended above the coals heat up completely and then carefully place the meat, allowing space between each slice. This way they'll brown and crisp up like crunchy slices of bacon and have a better chance of soaking up that smoky charcoal flavor. A lettuce leaf, a healthy dollop of ssamjang and maybe a pickled radish for a little acid and crunch, and you're on your way to one of the most delicious bites you'll ever assemble at your own table.

No matter what you order, side dishes called banchan arrive at your table shortly after. The small sides are seemingly endless: cold broccoli dressed with chili sauce; seared slices of tofu; pickled bean sprouts tinged with chili; fish cakes soaked in a sweet sauce; shrimp so small 10 of them could rest on your fingernail; thinly sliced, sweet cucumber, and more. So many banchan exist you'll likely encounter a few new ones each time you return, like the cold hot dogs in chili sauce that surprised me during my last visit to the restaurant.

Cabbage kimchi, however, is always present, which is a good thing considering Seoul Garden is serving some stellar fermented roughage right now. The leaves are sturdy, maintain their crunch and deliver an amount of chili that burns through that subtle kimchi funk. It's delicious and rightly goes on to elevate other dishes you should consider for your table if it's not already overwhelmed with banchan. Kimchi jaeyook bokum pairs the cabbage with pork, vegetables and slices of rice cake in a punchy stir-fry that is one of Seoul Garden's best dishes. The same cabbage gives a pancake a bright orange color reminiscent of Nacho Cheese Doritos.

With so many dishes, a table is likely to look like a war zone toward the end of a meal, which can make you thankful dessert is quite small. You'll only see it, though, if you request sikhye (shik-yay) when you ask for your check. Your server may give you that look again, but the sweetened rice beverage is worth a try, even though it resembles a small tumbler of spent dishwater with rice floating at the bottom. Looks aside, the drink is sweet and refreshing, and malt powder and plenty of sugar lend the taste of fledgling, yet-to-be-fermented beer.

Sikhye may not be a slice of chocolate cake, but cake after several plates of grilled meat, a few pancakes and an endless procession of banchan would make getting up and walking to your car difficult. Consider the diminutive closer a reward and an affirmation you're not just another blip passing through this largely Korean dining room. Seoul Garden hasn't remained open for two decades by catering to the timid palates that occasionally drop in for a meal. Convince your server that you're an adventurous diner to get the most out of your meal here.

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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz