by Eric Ginsburg
It only seemed fair, after declaring 2015 the year of Korean food, to revisit Seoul Garden.
I first showed up at the longstanding Korean restaurant — it opened in 2005 — in west Greensboro in 2014. With practically no knowledge of the region’s food and an overzealous sense of adventurism coupled with unexpected complementary sides, I left feeling underwhelmed. My stomach may have been mildly displeased.
I’d grown up with two close friends who are Korean, which makes it a little more embarrassing that I didn’t try the cuisine until age 25, at one of those places in Manhattan with grills embedded in the table; Picture a toned-down, DIY version of hibachi restaurants like Kabuto, sans onion volcano.
The New York experience thrilled me, but I chalked it up to the sort of thing I’d have to do without at home in the Triad. The Seoul Garden experience proved unremarkable, disappointing even. (Insert mental image of the Charlie Brown-style, head-bowed, sad-shuffle bit in “Arrested Development.”)
In 2015, I realized the error in my ways, gravitating towards the Korean barbecue beef (bulgogi), breaded pork chops (don katsu) and mixed rice and veggies with egg (bibimbap) at Don Japanese Ishiyaki & Ramen restaurant in Greensboro. I found myself fiending, ordering takeout to eat home alone at times and convincing friends to try it with me on occasion.
And then came the gigantic kimchi pancake and the Korean steamed buns with pork and chives at Da Sa Rang, a Korean restaurant near Super G Mart, which I learned about in separate trips with friends more educated than I. Next up, the bulgogi burrito at El Nuevo, a Mexican restaurant downtown run by three Koreans who fused the two nations’ cuisines. I’ve been hopelessly in love with those burritos ever since, pining for them during the last few weeks as El Nuevo closed around the holidays.
I also tried the bulgogi burrito at Urban Street Grill — a food truck that frequents places like Gibb’s Hundred Brewing — in 2015, though I haven’t had a chance to sample the bulgogi cheesesteak yet.
It only seemed appropriate then, in my continued adoration of Korean fare, that I give Seoul Garden another shot. After all, I didn’t know squat on my first time in.
I realized soon after sitting down to dinner there a couple nights ago just how clueless I’d been. A table nearby sported the embedded grill allowing patrons to cook their own meat, a feature I’d missed entirely and hadn’t found elsewhere since. Not noticing it until after ordering an appetizer — the hot combo sampler with fried and boiled veggie dumplings and don katsu — I vowed a third trip with a few friends where I’d ask for a grill table.
A friend and regular at Seoul Garden recommended the jjol myun (spicy cold noodles with cabbages, bean sprouts, cucumbers and egg) and the pricier sam kyup sal (grilled pork belly with mushrooms, onions and a spicy soybean paste stew). But at least for this trip, I wanted to play it safe, avoiding seafood and pretty much anything I hadn’t tried before.
Yeah I know, boring. But I wanted to establish a sort of control, a test by which I could compare to the limited other Korean dining experiences I’d had in order to hopefully bring Seoul Garden back into my personal fold.
And it worked.
The bulgogi dubbab — pretty comparable to the bulgogi don at Don Japanese — ranked highest, the thin slices of marinated beef and vegetables served with rice in a hot stone bowl.
To some, the sizzling stone bowls at a place like Don are too hot; if you aren’t careful it will start to burn the rice at the bottom, requiring quick mixing upon the dish’s arrival. Sometimes, it’s almost too hot to eat.
That isn’t the case at Seoul Garden, making it more approachable to some, though it’s still possible to singe your hand if you accidentally bump the bowl’s exterior.
I’m more partial to the don katsu at Don — as part of the appetizer here it came with a marinara-esque sauce and almost tasted like mozzarella sticks. (Translation: this is a great way to introduce a picky child to Korean food, if you’re looking for a window!)
It wouldn’t be fair to compare the bibimbap; both are enjoyable and similar enough while bringing slightly different flavors to bear, though it’s hard to pinpoint the differences without each in front of you. But Seoul Garden boasts a bunch of vegetarian options including the default position for the bibimbap — I added bulgogi to the dol sot bibim bap, a few dollars extra but well worth it. Vegetarians wouldn’t feel like the dish is lacking without it, though.
Thumbs up on the dumplings, especially the fried ones (predictable, I know). And as for the bulgogi, the beef, rice and vegetable dish that comes in a hot stone bowl, it’s an honest toss-up between Seoul and Don. Ideally, I might switch between the two variations every time I eat the dish.
A lighted sign by the door at Seoul Garden advertises that the restaurant will begin serving ramen — a Japanese dish that’s increasingly in vogue in the United States — as a special soon, which could mean choosing between the two venues will grow all the more challenging.
But while the ramen might compel me, it’s really the possibility of grill-it-yourself Korean barbecue, the bulgogi bowl and a curiosity about other dishes like the pork belly with mushrooms that will bring me back.
Good thing I gave Seoul Garden another shot.
Visit Seoul Garden at 5318 W. Market St. (GSO) or at seoul-garden.com.