Korea Garden

By | September 5, 2006

Korea Garden
414 Semple Street
Oakland,  15213
M-Sat: 11-10

In legend it is said there exists a hole-in-the-wall restaurant deep in the netherworld of South Oakland on the insidious Semple Street.  This restaurant serves Korean food, but not just any – the BEST.  It has been passed down that native Koreans proclaim it to be the most authentic in all of Pittsburgh, far more so than Sushi Kim or Winner’s.  Yet it remains elusive.  Well, after years of chasing the myth, I’ve found it!  It is in Oakland, just as the legend says.  It is also delicious, as the legend declares.  It is full of Koreans and Korean language is everywhere, in the air and on the menu.  Yup, this is it – the holy grail of Korean food in Pittsburgh.Korea Garden will make you feel wide-eyed and young again in that you will be deluged with the unfamiliar and new.  You may very well experience a flavor delicious but unknown to you that seems fundamental, like the very first time you tasted chicken broth or peanut butter.  When you receive your zillions of little side dishes, as is typical in Korean dining, you may find objects you cannot identify.  The waitress may not be able to explain what these things are to you in English either, so you just have to take the plunge all on your own.  There are those in this world who might fear mysterious objects, but know that if there is a place to try such things it would be here for the quality is great, and apparently exemplary of the cuisine.

The menu is split into styles of cooking: Korean, Japanese, and Chinese cooked in Korean fashion (rather than American).  Some of these sections are split into subsets of meat and noodle ingredients.  The appetizers are sprinkled throughout the menu, categorized into the above cooking styles rather than sectioned out on their own.  Not all of them are available year round – the dumplings, for instance, are for cold-weather months.

Though the whole menu is worth exploring, I encourage first-time visitors to order at least one meal off of the all-Korean menu.  Bi Bim Bap (rice, meat, and seasoned veggies topped with an egg served with a spicy sauce) is an exceedingly popular dish in Korea, as well as in Korean restaurants in America.  They serve an exceptional Bi Bim Bap here with such interesting toppings as root vegetables, beans, and sautéed greens, plus the option of crispy rice.  You may have already had Korean short ribs as a place like Sushi Kim, where they are saucy and spicy.  At Korea Garden, the Korean short ribs are more subtly flavored with more of a spice rub than a sauce.  Though they are differently flavored, they are meaty and tasty all the same.  The self-proclaimed most-famous Spicy Silken Tofu Soup is quite delicately delicious and sometimes you get a surprise egg in the velvety broth.  I witnessed a person unaccustomed to eating Korean become a faithful convert over the course of sipping his Hot Tofu Soup.

My personal favorite item from the Korean menu is the thinly sliced pork in a savory yet  sweet sauce (forgive me for not having the Korean names here – I think it might be #7 or #9).  Oh MAN that is SOOOO good!  There are big thick pieces of onion and various other veggies, and the pork slices are awesomely succulent.  Sometimes you’ll get a pork slice that is part or all fat, which typically I might find off-putting.  Not here!  It is SO wonderful!  It isn’t some kind of gross fat – it is intentionally cooked into the dish and thus is just marvelous.  I shouldn’t even mention the fat because I know some people might avoid getting this dish now, but really – it is so worth it, like the fat of bacon.  The sauce itself is a thick, red, sweet and spicy concoction.  There is what I might usually think of as an excessive amount of oil, but it actually bears no negative impact on the overall flavor, texture, or memory of this dish.  This is an absolutely outstanding meal.

Other things I’ve had a chance to nibble on here are from other parts of the menu.  A friend got the filet mignon and shrimp bento box once, and though it was perhaps a bit short on shrimp, the beef was miles long on flavor and quantity.  The fried rice is fluffier and less oily than you usually find it at other restaurants, and it had little egg bits mixed entirely throughout, making a satisfying side dish.  The five-or-so little Korean side dishes that come with the Korean meals always includes Kimchi (superb here), but everything else is ever-changing.  Sometimes braised spinach and beans, sometimes sautéed zukes, often Korean pickles, occasionally just a spot of some kind of sauce, a tofu wad or two….a whole range of strange to familiar, all of which will surprise you.  Once I even had a jiggly gelatin side dish, which was not as scary as you might think (the fear is all in your minds, people).

I have also heard time and again that the noodles here are fabulous – something about homemade and all that.  I’ve had recommended to me the Korean Cold Noodle and the udon noodles.  Finding these things on the menu and then deciding on which one to get is not as easy as you might think.  My last visit was a noodle mission, but I never did find anything described as Korean Cold Noodle.  The udon section is a vast selection of soups and I just couldn’t decide which of the many versions I wanted.  I ended up getting something off of the Chinese-cooked-in-Korean-style page which consisted of beef slices, onion, veggies, and a big heap of clear stretchy noodles.  So stretchy, in fact, that they also brought me a pair of scissors to cut them with as I ate!!!  I just love that.  Anyway, the noodles were great and the beef and veggies delectable, but I am still on my quest for the Korean Cold Noodle!

Just to round out the review, I will say that the wait staff is friendly and helpful, if sometimes at a loss for English words.  But to me, this is the wonder of Korea Garden.  On any given night, the space will be filled with Korean families at the big chunky tables, rapt in conversation and deeply enjoying the meal set before them.  For those of you who aren’t sissies, and who love a good ethnic meal that caters to the tastes of the ethnicity rather than the Americanized version, please consider trying the legendary Korea Garden.  It may be in the netherworld of South Oakland, but you don’t have to fight Cerberus to get in, and how can’t you love a place where you get scissors as an additional piece of cutlery?!

Korean Thinly Slice Pork Dish (possibly #7 or #9)

The Japanese section is almost entirely served bento box style, some with special lunch portions, making this one of the better gastronomical lunch deals in Oakland.  The rest of the dishes are more of a dinner price than a lunch price, no matter what the time of day.

1 Comment