The squid was just an afterthought. The bulgogi (marinated rib eye) and bulgalbi (marinated boneless short ribs) would probably have been plenty of food for the three of us, especially since you get lots of extra dishes at Korean barbecue joints like Korea Garden Restaurant on Long Point. But I ordered a shrimp, scallop, and squid combo anyway. The tables here have barbecue grills built into the middle. If you plan on ordering Korean barbecue (always a good bet), the waitress lights your grill as soon as you sit down.
The atmosphere at this little hideaway is very cozy. The elaborate booths are like tiny private dining nooks. You practically disappear when you sit down in the deep seats. And you feel further sheltered by an overhang of rounded Korean roof tiles.
One row of booths runs down each side of the dining room. There's a long brick planter topped by a fountain in the middle of the room that screens the view of the booths on the other side. It's a confined feeling, and you can't really look around and see what's going on. But the place is beautifully designed with gray tile floors, extensive brickwork and an elegant archway between the bar and the dining room.
The artwork in the booths is a little strange. Each one is decorated with a photograph of dolls posing in real life situations. There's a mama doll about to bathe a baby doll photographed on a moss-covered rock beside a green creek. Another booth has a photo of two dolls shopping in an actual market. I can't decide whether this is Korean schlock art, toy industry advertising or the tongue-in-cheek work of a brilliant avant garde photographer, or all of the above.
We were initially ushered to the first booth on the right hand side; it's the best seat in the house. Unfortunately, the grill in the table wouldn't light, so the waitress had us get up and move to a much less desirable table in the back that sits right out in the middle of the floor. We tried not to be bitter. At least the grill worked.
Before the barbecue items arrive, we get the spread of treats. This miniature smorgasbord is one of the best things about eating in Korean restaurants. At Korea Garden, there are eight items, which alternate depending on what's going on in the kitchen. Tonight's complimentary sides are spicy kim chee, crunchy bread and butter pickles with garlic and chile, slices of dense dried tofu marinated in a spicy sauce, some little silver dollar-sized scallion pancakes, chewy seaweed salad, cold seafood omelet, cold grilled sweet potato slices and thin white shreds of pickled daikon. There is also a dish of garlic chile paste to use on the barbecue.
All three barbecue dishes arrive together. The raw red meat is marinated in a spicy sauce. I have a feeling that once we start cooking it, the fish will get neglected. So I throw all the marinated seafood on the hot grill right away. It sizzles and pops and smells like burning seaweed. The scallops are a real pain. They stick to the metal grill elements and end up coming apart in shreds. The shrimp are much easier to deal with. But the squid turns out to be everybody's favorite.
Squid is one of those barbecue meats that Thelma's, Drexler's and Goode Company all seem to have overlooked. Marinated as it is here at Korea Garden in lots of chiles and garlic, it develops a spicy coating in the grilling process. The tangy barbecue sauce along with the blackened edges gives the chewy cephalopod a surprising depth of flavor.
Not that the bulgogi and bulgalbi aren't big hits too. After grilling the thin boneless meat strips, we fold them up in big fresh Romaine leaves with chile garlic sauce and condiments. The lettuce and bulgogi wrap has much in common with a fajita taco, and it's better for the Atkins diet.
The last time I had Korean barbecue was at the Green Pine Tree Korean Bar and Grill (see "Bibim Bap's Rap," April 3). On that occasion, I followed the waitress's suggestion and ordered a big combination platter that included tripe, intestines and tongue along with the steak and short ribs. Innards are favorite barbecue items among Asians and I don't mind eating them myself. But my dining companions were completely grossed out. As I've said before: There is such a thing as too much authenticity.
Korea Garden makes the Korean barbecue experience somewhat easier for non-Asians. The menu is clearly translated and the restaurant is very good at catering to clueless Anglos like me. You would have a hard time accidentally ordering intestines here. In fact, I don't think they'd bring you any unless you could ask for them in Korean.
At the Green Pine Tree, the Korean guys at the next table were meticulously grilling garlic slices along with their meats. I was jealous when I thought about how good that roasted garlic was going to taste on their Romaine tacos. So when we ordered our meal at Korea Garden, I remembered to ask the waitress to bring us some garlic too.
The waitress was a bit shocked but she returned immediately with a bowl of garlic slivers and delivered them with a big smile. Evidently, asking for garlic in a Korean barbecue restaurant earns you instant respect. You have to be fairly adept at chopstick handling to turn the little buggers, but the reward is well worth the trouble. Roasted garlic and chile paste is an awesome accompaniment to thin-sliced rib eye hot off the grill. They were the best Romaine roasted garlic and bulgogi tacos I've ever had.
Korea Garden has cheap lunch specials on weekdays and judging by the tables around me, the barbecued boneless short ribs are the most popular of the five choices. The meat comes already cooked at lunch time. It's served in a lacquered bento box along with steamed greens, sweet potatoes, tempura squash and fried rice. Not a bad lunch for under six bucks.
I made another evening visit to Korea Garden to sample the rest of the menu. And I struck out. There wasn't anything wrong with the broiled mackerel. It's just that mackerel is a very strong-tasting fish and this version was served plain. I would have liked it better with some kind of sauce or spicy counterpoint. A bowl of Korean-style wheat noodles featured a big flavorful broth and lots of tasty tree-ear mushrooms and meat. The large pieces of fake crab floating in it were a bit of a turn-off. The noodle bowl was okay, but there are too many other great Asian noodle joints in Houston to order them here.
Stir-fried squid was the best non- barbecue selection from the dinner menu. Big chunks of squid were tossed with scallions, mushrooms, onion, zucchini and more fake crab in a chile garlic sauce. It was extremely spicy and a welcome departure from the mundane noodles and the plain broiled fish. But in the end, none of the other things we sampled were nearly as good as the barbecue.
Maybe it's the fun of cooking it yourself. Maybe it's the "eatertainment" value as they say at Benihana. But there is no doubt that do-it-yourself barbecue is the thing to order at Houston's Korean restaurants. And Korea Garden's snug booths are a luxurious and intimate place to try it. By all means get the popular bulgogi and bulgalbi. But don't overlook the barbecued squid.
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