By Chris Klint
12:55 PM AKST, November 30, 2011
300 E. Dimond Blvd.
$9-$14 per plate
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
Editor’s note: Lunchbox is a new series from Channel 2 staff reviewing single lunches, rather than restaurants’ entire menus. We hope to deliver experiences from a wide array of Anchorage’s available cuisine, as well as highlight delicious deals for your daytime dining dollar.
One of Anchorage’s many ethnic groups is its thriving Korean community, which is well-represented with several local church congregations and an annual cultural festival, as well as Korean lettering alongside the English on many local businesses’ signage.
Among those businesses is Korean Garden, which had a turbulent grand opening earlier this year after a car accidentally smashed through its South Anchorage strip-mall storefront in May. A modest but loyal following has frequented the eatery, which sits next door to a FedEx Office location about a block east of Dimond Boulevard’s intersection with King Street.
Channel 2’s Christine Kim, a newsroom authority on the city’s Korean restaurants, recently came back from a visit to Korean Garden with fellow reporters Jason Lamb and Ted Land -- both well-traveled gourmands when off-duty -- raving about an incredibly good dinner there. Ted confessed that he hadn’t expected to even try the squid entrée Christine enthusiastically recommended, but liked it a lot when he actually gave it a taste. The story put the place’s name in my head, and I resolved to give it a try when I was next in the area.
That chance came last week, when I was leaving Costco during an early Christmas-shopping trip and it was time for a well-deserved lunch. The store’s own lunch counter briefly beckoned, but then I remembered where I was and drove along Dimond to follow Christine’s lead.
Although the restaurant was relatively empty at about 2 p.m., with only a pair of Korean men eating in a booth near mine, the lone waitress on duty quickly seated me and set a mug of steaming bo-ri-cha (barley tea) on the table. To an unaccustomed palate like mine the beverage was bitter and slightly medicinal, but the heat was definitely welcome after being outside loading up my car at Costco.
While the restaurant’s menu offers a variety of authentic Korean meals, ranging from jung-shik (the family-style seafood meal Christine ordered with Jason and Ted) to specialties like mool-naengmyon (buckwheat noodles in cold broth) and agu tang (a sablefish stew), I knew exactly what I wanted before I even sat down: bulgogi.
The Korean answer to barbecue, bulgogi retains a strongly spiced character more or less absent from the American dish, which has largely succumbed to a wave of sugary barbecue sauces bearing an ever-greater resemblance to ketchup. I still eat both, since I have an inherent weakness for a good piece of beef brisket, but bulgogi is a rare treat -- one I’m always on the lookout for.
Korean Garden offers several types of bulgogi, including the traditional beef bulgogi as well as chicken and daeji (pork) varieties. I ordered a Lunch Box special of daeji bulgogi ($10.99, served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), then sat back to grasp my cup of bo-ri-cha in both hands until they were once again warm.
About half an hour later, my lunch was served with numerous Korean side dishes in a lacquered wooden box: sizable portions of bulgogi and white rice, alongside elegantly presented compartments of kong-nah-mul (seasoned bean sprouts), pickled radish and seasoned broccoli, as well as a small piece of fried tofu. No fewer than three side cups included samples of kimchi (spiced cabbage) and oh-dang (fish cakes), as well as the house beef-vegetable soup.
The first thing I sampled was the bulgogi, and it was magnificent: spicy but easily eaten medallions of pork, cooked until they were caramelized in their sauce, accented with sesame seeds and sliced scallions. The meat produced a warm, rolling burn on the tongue, more powerful than most bulgogi I’ve had, yet pleasantly stimulating and easily cut by mouthfuls of rice.
From there I reasoned that the soup would best be sampled while it was still warm. I was handsomely repaid with a dish strongly reminiscent of Chinese won ton soup, with the dumplings replaced by free-floating bits of boiled beef and radishes. I had only meant to try some and come back, but the soup was so surprisingly delicious and filling with every spoonful that I polished off the entire cup in short order.
The seasoned broccoli was very similar to the way I often eat broccoli at home, steamed and then doused with balsamic vinaigrette: cool and sharply sour, with an earthy touch from the vegetable itself. That also described the pickled radish and to a lesser extent the kimchi, although the other dishes possessed less crunch but more punch thanks to their uncooked preparation. The bean sprouts offered a change of pace from the rice, slightly more capable of standing up to strong fare like the bulgogi.
At this point, I was pleasantly full, so I only tried small portions of the fried tofu (much like any fried food, but a strange texture to my experience) and the oh-dang (too salty for my taste, forcing me to take a drink). It was good that I slowed down, however, because as I finished eating I was brought a small cup of impressively dark brew: cinnamon tea.
Christine says cinnamon tea is a traditional dessert course offered at Korean Garden, but I must confess that I could have put away a glass of the stuff with my meal, served just as piping hot. Don’t add sugar to it, because it needs none; the cinnamon visibly clouds and swirls in the water, producing a powerful hit of flavor when it reaches your taste buds before it seemingly evaporates on your next inhale.
All in all, Korean Garden exemplifies the power of a good surprise. Many people drive past its storefront on Dimond, which isn’t very visible from the road, without even seeing the place -- but if they make the turn and stop they’ll find not just a good lunch but strong dishes, like the house soup and cinnamon tea, that fuel the body yet leave the mind wanting seconds.
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