Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fare: Korean, Japanese and "Korean-style" Chinese
Atmosphere: What atmosphere?
Liquor: Limited beer and wine
With Turkey Day fast approaching, we found ourselves working up an appetite for the opposite of poultry, potatoes and casserole. Don't get us wrong -- Thanksgiving may just be our favorite holiday, revolving, as it does, around food. But facing a full day spent stuffing the bird, then ourselves, followed by a week's worth of single-theme leftovers, we veered clear this week of New World cooking and set our sights east -- far east.
Oakland's Korea Garden offers three cuisines -- Korean, Chinese, and Japanese -- and not one of them includes turkey. We were drawn to the place by our affinity for Korean food, of course, but also by the intriguing promise of "Korean-style Chinese Cuisine," which we hoped would prove an engaging alterative to standard American-Chinese restaurant fare. We left alone the Japanese section of the menu, marked by such inauthentic dishes as filet mignon, and focused on the dishes from Korea and China, which seemed to comprise the house specialties.
Our first taste of hot-and-sour soup suggested that our hunch was right. One of the best versions of this classic Asian soup we've tried, Korea Garden's was substantial but not goopy like some we've had, slightly spicy and deliciously tangy. An unusual ingredient really pulled the whole thing together: Copious slices of onion, only lightly cooked, added freshness and crunch without dominating the flavor, their pungency lending yet another dimension to an already complex soup.
All the rest of our food arrived at once, leading to a bewilderingly full table of colorful dishes set against a backdrop of white rice and kim chi (Korean spicy preserved cabbage). Jason dove straight for the short-tipped ribs of the Korean menu's L.A. gal bi. Looking more like small pork chops than any ribs we've encountered before, they were hearty and chewy, their elemental meatiness unfettered by complicated preparation. Instead, a spicy, vinegary, bright red sauce, reminiscent of Vietnamese sriracha, was served on the side, but Jason dipped sparingly, enjoying the simplicity of the ribs themselves.
Angelique meanwhile dug into her bi bim bap, a mixed plate of seasoned vegetables, meat and egg served on a bed of fluffy rice. The pleasure of this dish is the multitude of different flavors and textures in concert: lightly sautéed greens, toothsome root vegetables and tender beans of several varieties complemented the ground beef and egg, while almost-mature bean sprouts added raw freshness and fluffy rice provided substance. Multi-faceted yet mild, this is Korean comfort food and a delightful one-pot square meal.
Soon du bu, Korea Garden's self-proclaimed "famed spicy silken tofu stew," did indeed have a texture as smooth as the proverbial textile, though we did not find it particularly spicy. Jason would go so far as to say that the stew, spooned over rice, was a bit bland. But Angelique, more of a tofu fan, savored the silken curds in their delicately seasoned, beautifully vermilion sauce.
Our Korean-style Chinese entrée, jap chae, was a fairly typical beef-and-vegetable stir-fry, except for one stand-out ingredient: clear rice noodles. We have no idea if these are common in China, but we've never seen them in a Chinese restaurant here. We loved them for the lightness they lent to the dish, transforming what might have seemed unremarkable at a Chinese restaurant into something extraordinary here. The oily saltiness reminded Jason of lo mein, yet where that Chinese standard can be overly greasy, Korea Garden's jap chae had just enough soy-based sauce to darken the noodles and bring out the essence of the beef.
Although Korea Garden's interior is anonymous, without so much as a poster to decorate the white stucco walls, a number of its offerings hint at an ambition -- or perhaps a status already achieved in some circles -- as an event restaurant. Korean chicken and seafood hotpots, presumably meant for sharing, run more than $30, and the Chinese seafood menu includes a sea cucumber dish for $35. We are thankful for places like Korea Garden, which allow us to feast on foods the pilgrims and the Indians never dreamed of.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2 stars