Dressed in a white chef's jacket, Simon Moon neatly arranged raw marinated short rib meat (kalbi), rib eye steak (bulgogi), shrimp and lots of cloves of garlic on the grill built into the middle of our table. Korean barbecue is usually a do-it-yourself affair, but the owner of Korea Garden Grille doted on us, personally preparing every item on the barbecue menu and asking for our opinions. It's so nice to have your own personal chef.
Our lunch outing got started when a member of the "Houston Chowhounds" group wanted to know where to get Korean barbecue in Houston after being introduced to it on a trip to Asia. I told the Chowhounds about Korea Garden Grille on Bellaire, a restaurant I had been meaning to review for a long time.
The Chowhounds arrived before I did, and since they weren't sure how to proceed, Moon gave them a guided tour of his remarkable restaurant. Our special treatment might have been due to the fact that two of the Chowhounds were very attractive young women. Besides that, there were hardly any other customers in the restaurant on that weekday afternoon — and the chef is a very nice guy.
Moon also owns the cozy Korea Garden restaurant in the Koreatown area of Longpoint, one of several restaurants where we have enjoyed Korean barbecue in the past [See "Barbecued Squid," August 21, 2003]. But when Moon built Korea Garden Grille a couple of years ago out on Bellaire near Hong Kong City Mall, he had bigger things in mind.
Most of the little Korean restaurants on Longpoint are designed around secluded booths and little private rooms with paper screens. Korea Garden Grille is a strikingly large, modern space that's open and airy. In most Korean restaurants, a waitress brings you the appetizer banchan, as the little dishes of kimchee and cold vegetables are called. Here a dazzling selection of banchan items are set out on a buffet.
Generally, I really like three or four of the banchan items the waitress brings, like the pressed tofu, the potato salad and the kimchee, and I am bored with the sprouts and some of the tofu. With all the selections out on a buffet, you can load up on the stuff you like, and even take second helpings. And you can skip the stuff you don't want.
And then, instead of picking a few raw barbecue meats from a limited menu like you usually do at a Korean barbecue restaurant, you take all the raw marinated meats and seafoods you want from the buffet. It's a mainstream-oriented selection of marinated chicken, pork, bulgogi, kalbi and shrimp, with some marinated squid pieces and octopus thrown in for the adventurous. I didn't see any of the tripe and other offal items that are favored by Japanese customers at hardcore Korean barbecue joints, but I didn't miss them either.
Korean barbecue restaurants generally offer either romaine lettuce leaf wrappers or steamed rice to eat with your grilled meats. To eat the barbecue with lettuce, you prep a leaf with hot chile sauce or garlic chile paste, add some grilled garlic and kimchee and then load the lettuce up with grilled meat or seafood and fold it into a taco. At Korea Garden, a dish of lettuce leaves is automatically brought to your table. And if you prefer your barbecue with rice, you serve yourself from the huge insulated pots at the beginning of the buffet line.
"There's white rice and my special five-rice blend," Moon explained. The five-rice blend, which contains some intriguing red rice along with a few black beans, is wonderfully flavorful. There are also two soups available at the rice island.
Moon introduced us to yet another way to eat Korean barbecue. "Try wrapping your meat in daikon," he instructed, setting a pile of the round white discs on the table. Prepped with a little chile sauce, the big, round, flexible slices of pickled daikon made extremely flavorful little Korean barbecue tacos. The pickled daikon tortillas were just big enough for one or two pieces of meat. The women were especially fond of the daikon, which made for a much daintier wrapper than the romaine leaves.
On a second visit to Korea Garden Grille on a weekend evening, the restaurant was much more crowded. My dining companion that day was a big fan of the "soon tofu" (fresh tofu soup), bibimbap, as well as the seafood pancakes served at other Korean restaurants. This kind of Korean food is new to Houston [see "Tofu Village," September 11, 2007], and it has drawn many fans.
After one trip to Korea Garden Grille's appetizer buffet, my companion expressed her disappointment. She hated the rubbery seafood pancake. The omelets are delivered hot-off-the-grill in most Korean restaurants, and at some, they come on a heated stone to keep them piping hot. At Korea Garden Grille, the pancakes are cut into small pieces and served on the buffet, where they get cold and chewy.
"It's a Korean barbecue restaurant," I said. "You can't say you don't like the place — you haven't even eaten any grilled meats yet."
I managed to divert my companion's attention with the excellent seaweed salad, kimchee cucumbers and cold, spicy potatoes while I grilled some pieces of pork and bulgogi. When the waitress stopped by to refill our water glasses, my tablemate asked the server to let us know when some more hot omelets came out of the kitchen.
My tablemate's dim view changed with her first bite of barbecued pork. I smeared garlic chile paste on a pickled daikon round and added a couple of pieces of pork, which I cooked extra-crispy. The combination of sweet, hot pork, garlic and screamingly piquant chile on the lovely little round of sour pickled daikon was an irresistible combination — each little taco had all of the sweet, sour, hot and salty elements of the Asian-flavor signature in a striking balance.
While she begged me to make her another pork and daikon taquito, the waitress arrived with a whole seafood pancake hot off the grill and set it before the picky diner. The pancake was excellent, and she was completely won over.
I asked the waitress if the pineapple and watermelon on the buffet line were for dessert. She said that some people like to grill the fruit and eat it with the meat. "Grill some pineapple chunks and eat it with the pork, " she instructed. So I took a bowl of the canned pineapple back to the table. The rest of the crispy pork and daikon tacos I made for us included little chunks of grilled pineapple along with grilled garlic cloves and chile paste.
I have been so taken by the new "soon tofu" Korean restaurants lately, I forgot how much I liked the combination of flavor and entertainment provided by cooking your own Korean barbecue at the table. Given the choice, my dining companion would probably still prefer to eat "soon tofu," but she definitely left Korea Garden Grille with a new respect for Korean barbecue.
You might argue that the banchan items on the buffet at Korea Garden Grille aren't as fresh or lovingly prepared as those at other Korean restaurants. But the stellar selection of barbecue items in unlimited quantities and the new and interesting ways to eat them here more than make up for the shortcomings of the appetizers.
All-you-can-eat Asian buffets are usually a bad joke when it comes to quality, but not this one. If you love Korean barbecue, this place will rock your world.