Honolulu is an ethnic quilt of foods. I remember going to the Honolulu Zoo as a child, and my friend Valerie's Korean mom had sent lunch with her. My mom packed something, too. We switched lunches, and my love affair with Korean cuisine began. Growing up in Hawaii, I had lots of exotic food choices, but I discovered that nobody does grilled meat better than the Koreans.
Both lunch and dinner are great experiences at Korean Garden. The bento box at lunch was tasty and a great bargain. It comes with a choice of meats served with two pieces of a California roll, three pieces of vegetable tempura, one mandu (dumpling), miso soup, rice, a house salad and an assortment of side dishes. Mandu are the Korean version of won tons, but they're half-moon shaped. Filled with ground pork and sweet cabbage, they come either grilled or steamed. The side dishes are the tantalizing assortment of pickles and condiments that Korean food is famous for. The kimchi was amazing; the bean sprouts refreshing. The main meat choices include traditional Korean grilled meats and Japanese tempura and teriyaki. I chose the pork bulgogi, thin slices of pork marinated in a sesame-soy marinade and then grilled to perfection. The entire bento box was beautifully arranged, and the aroma coming off the grilled pork was delectable. The lunch box itself was very traditional in layout, but generous in serving size.
My buddy had the short ribs — tender, flavorful and not dried out at all (as they sometimes can be). The portions were great, and the flavors contrasted between the sharp kimchi and the sweet grilled meat. Both of us are hearty eaters, but we still had a tiny bit left over. This may be the best lunch bargain in town — the bento-box lunches range from $8 to $10 and offer an interesting blend of flavors without being too spicy or exotic.
The restaurant has installed tabletop grills with hoods in private spaces, and there's a call bell on the wall that summons a smiling server in traditional Korean attire. This system makes the restaurant a great place for conversation, business meetings or just friends who want the hear each other. The menu is quite extensive, and in addition to Korean grilled food, it includes Japanese entrées, grilled fish selections, a sushi bar, traditional casseroles and great noodle dishes. But since the grilled meat specialties are my favorite, that's what we tried.
During a dinner visit, my two companions and I each chose one entrée: beef, pork and shrimp. The beer list includes some Korean brews, and my husband pronounced the one he had quite tasty. The wine list is better than expected, with nice choices by the glass. We had dumplings first, one order steamed and one grilled. They don't rush you here, but the bell is right on the wall if you need something.
The charcoal grill is lit, the hood is turned on, and the action begins. The fabulous side dishes arrive, with kimchi, sprouts, radishes prepared two ways, sesame greens, and a kimchi-and-tofu soup that was astounding. The broth was flavorful, with a hint of spice, and they gave the three of us long-handled spoons to reach the bowl.
The servers do the cooking here. They present you with dipping sauces and fresh lettuce leaves to roll the barbecued meat in. We started with the shrimp — sweet, delicate and butterflied, lightly seasoned and grilled to perfection. The steamed rice is served in metal bowls that stay warm throughout most of the meal. As we sampled the many condiments, our server cooked the beef over high heat so that the middle was still cooked medium and the outside was crispy. Wrapped in a cool lettuce leaf with sauces and pickles, it was outstanding. The server then grilled the pork bulgogi, which was fabulous. The variety, freshness, flavors and presentation make this dish an excellent treat for a group (they do suggest reservations for more than eight people).
Korean food is perfect fall and winter cuisine: complex, warming and so very tasty. It's a must-try, with something for everyone. And Korean Garden is easy to get to, located on Midlothian Turnpike right where it meets Chippenham Parkway. There's also a Korean market behind the restaurant — if your kimchi supply is running low.
6827 Midlothian Turnpike, 675-0511
Prices: Lunch $8 to $16; dinner appetizers, $4 to $7; dinner entrées, $9 to $32; dessert, $3 to $5.
Hours : 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Monday through Sunday.