Take Korean Garden. Dressed up as a used-car outfit outside, it meshes so well with the Hondas and Saturns you wouldn't glance twice while cruising toward other destinations. The atmosphere screams utilitarian. Attached to the restaurant is a small Korean grocery where DVDs nestle next to the Korean version of ramen noodles and candy.
On our first visit, we're efficiently seated in the middle of an almost-empty dining room. Elevator music is faint in the background. The menu is large and somewhat difficult to maneuver, but thanks to a curt but knowledgeable waitress and a well-versed Asian friend, decisions are made. We choose bul gobi (sliced beef tenderloin, $17), bul galbi (beef short ribs, $23) and soft tofu soup ($9).
Korean barbecue is a show. In the same manner as teppenyaki or the more familiar Japanese steak house, most of your meal is cooked for you on the gas eye in the middle of your table. It can be daunting. Once you order barbecue, miniature bowls of varying kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage) and other banchan (pickled fish, seaweed, vinegary onions, creamy tangy potatoes) that you didn't order start arriving. Addicting little plates, they fortunately appear bottomless at Korean Garden. May I suggest canning these delicious starters? The onions pack an exceptional haymaker. Garnishes and sauces appear with little flourish and all seem to be varying shades of brown.
At your table, meat is cut off the bone and placed directly on the gas burner in the center. Turned deftly by your server, a portion is dished out and the process begins again. The bul gobi is enchanting. Sweet and spicy glaze gives the pounded thin slices of tender beef a nice char, pairing successfully with the kimchi's vinegar. But be aware that this isn't an inexpensive dinner. To receive this barbecue experience you must have a minimum of two people ordering.
On another visit, we want more of the same, and wonder how a second live performance will rate. This time, the short-rib dish is the lead singer. A little on the chewier and peppery side, this is your Asian rack. With a lovely baek seju (rice-based wine), you start to get a feel for this cafeteria-esque restaurant. This visit, however, our soft tofu soup suffers slightly by our own hand. Arriving at our table much later than the other entrees, it sits for a bit. Cold, soft tofu is not tasty. This soup is not for beginners. If you don't love tofu, this will not be your jam. Taste-wise, the soup is comforting. Texturally, the tofu has the consistency of raw oysters. You've been warned.
Other visits produce additional hits and a few misses. The goat stew ($15) is delightful. A relatively obscure meat for Richmond, it's accessible and hearty. The freshwater snails in hot sauce are a revelation. They nail the salty and sweet dance but run a tad on the pricey side ($25) considering the amount you receive per order. If you have a hankering for offal, try the beef tongue (hyemit gui, $17). Its rich and deep yet delicate flavor makes this dish a must-order for internal delicacy lovers. The barbecue aspect makes it perfect for those attempting a foray into adventurous eating.
Where Korean Garden lacks footing is in the Americanized versions of the staples. The fried dumplings are decent, the teriyakis pedestrian. But these menu items aren't the reason to venture to this converted Red Lobster. The real reason is the authentic Korean food by a local family.
Korean and Japanese cuisine
6827 Midlothian Turnpike
Open daily 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Daughter of a successful restaurateur and former right hand to a well-known German chef, Robey Martin's experience includes working in restaurants through Europe, fine dining and a restaurant start-up. She writes the blog http://whinemedineme.wordpress.com.