If I could, I'd replace dinner with happy-hour appetizers. Forget the American-style "square meal" -- I'd much prefer bacon-wrapped dates, deep-fried ravioli, hummus with pita chips and maybe a nice salad. The beauty of Korean cuisine is banchan, small dishes of food that accompany any entree. These tasty, healthy little morsels beautifully complement any dish and transform the table into a colorful work of art.
Korean Garden is in South Anchorage, about a block east of the Dimond Boulevard/King Street intersection. The nondescript storefront exterior belies a clean, modern, well-appointed interior. Famished and in need of respite after a full day of Christmas shopping, my husband and I were warmly greeted by the wait staff before being escorted to a comfortable booth. Glasses of ice water and steaming mugs of barley tea arrived at our table almost immediately.
For those unfamiliar with Korean cuisine, the menu at Korean Garden can prove daunting. Items appear in Korean along with their American translation and a description of the dish. After some deciphering, I decided on the grilled mackerel ($15.99), which our server assured me was a good choice. My husband opted for the bukbaegi bulgogi ($14.99), a rich and flavorful beef soup. We barely had time to sip our tea before the entrees and an array of banchan -- including seasoned soybean sprouts, kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage), fried tofu and seaweed salad -- were artfully displayed before us.
The skin-on mackerel was served whole atop a bed of shredded cabbage and accompanied by lemon wedges. Frankly, the odor emanating from the silver-skinned vertebrate made me leery, but the crispy skin, flaky flesh and rich flavor assured me I had made the right choice.
My husband's soup was served piping hot and boasted an impressive beef-to-broth ratio. The beef was incredibly tender, and the savory broth, peppered with scallions, was just the thing to stave off the winter chill.
Along with unique dishes like nabgol jeongol (octopus and intestine stew), hew-naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles with raw fish) and seolung tang (beef bone soup), Korean Garden offers lunch box specials (akin to Japanese bento boxes) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Those with less adventurous palates can sample barbecue chicken, pan-fried noodles or spicy pork, along with rice, soup and banchan, for less than $12.
On my second trip, I ordered the kalbee (beef short-rib) lunch box. Service was again prompt and friendly, and the hostess/server even remembered me from my first visit. Americans tend to like their meat slathered in sticky, sweet barbecue sauce, but these ribs were saturated in a marinade that tasted subtly of sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic and honey. (As a bonus, I didn't need a wet-wipe at the end of my meal.) A complimentary hot cup of cinnamon tea provided the perfect finish to my meal and evoked the sweet, spicy flavors of the Christmas season.
Korean Garden may face an uphill battle due to its location -- it's barely visible from the street and competing with nearby Asian eateries Thai Orchid and Jimmy's Sushi -- but those who make the trip will be well rewarded with impeccable service, delicious food and a cozy, upscale atmosphere.
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