Although raised in a Korean family, I’ve never much enjoyed eating in Korean restaurants. I chalk it up to having been spoiled by the pleasures of our home kitchen: our great-grandmothers rolling out the thick, elastic man doo dough and teaching us to fill and shape the dumplings with a mash of diced pork and kim chee; our mother’s succulent braised hot-spicy shortribs we called chong ji dim (kal bi jim); best of all, of course, my grandparents’ barbecued beef.
The kim chee–cucumber, won bok, head cabbage, turnip–came from the business my grandparents owned until 1985: Halm’s Enterprises.
Nowadays, I find that take-out from Pearl’s or Kim Chee II does very well with the side dishes, such as seaweeds, soybean sprouts, braised cabbage and chopped boiled spinach. But the kimchee is invariably coarser and heavier than the crisp, well-trimmed recipe my grandparents developed to appeal across the broad spectrum of Hawaii tastes. Worse, the kal bi and pul go gi (bul go gi) taste sweet, more like teriyaki than my grandparents’ savory, garlicky marinade. And the short ribs are cut thin, rather than in thick squares scored by hand so that the succulent strands dangle like goose barnacles from a rock.
Then, within the same week, both my eldest brother and a childhood friend, whom I’ll call G., told me about Choi’s Garden. “It’s got kal bi like Peepaw [my grandfather] used to make,” my friend said. “It’s got chong ji dim (spicy steamed shortribs, kal bi chim) just like Mom used to make,” said my brother. “And the staff are really friendly,” he added.
Though new to us, Choi’s Garden was founded 10 years ago. I went twice. Mission: To compare the restaurant’s with my favorite family dishes. Although Choi’s is billed as a yakiniku restaurant, where you grill on the tabletop (yakiniku Kal Bi, $24.99), I don’t do this, having once nearly succumbed to asthma from the smoke at Woo Lae Oak in NYC.
We were greeted with cheery smiles (so un-Korean!). If you’re starving, come here. The waitress will be as impatient to feed you as you are to eat, so order quickly and it will all arrive swiftly, hot and fresh.
We settled into a booth in the airy, spacious room decorated with natural wood surfaces. The steamed Jin Man Doo appetizer ($11.99), had the thick, elastic, artisanal dough I haven’t experienced since my Hulmone’s day, and the ground meat/kim chee filling was spicy and (sigh of relief) not sweet in the least. The Hae Mool Pa Jun ($15.99) was less greasy than most I’ve had, heavy on the tentacles, eggy in a nice way, with a crisp crust. Full disclaimer: seafood/green onion pancake is not something my family used to make–G. wanted it.
Here came the BBQ beef short rib plate ($12.99), and to my dismay the waitress whipped out scissors and cut up the Kal Bi, detaching the meat from the bone. (“Usually, they cut between the bones,” remarked G. later.) This Kal Bi came closer to the mark: Not sweet. Slightly charred. Garlicky and oniony. Grown-up stuff, albeit a little “too fatty” for G.’s taste, if not mine.
Per usual in Korean establishments, the plate entrée came with steamed white rice and sides of namul, choi sum (tender and fresh but a mingy serving), seaweed salad, cucumber and won bok kim chees (better and less sour than average) and some odd little brown gelatinous logs that I viewed with suspicion, but G. enjoyed. I asked the waitress, and she said it was “acorn jelly.” Liking the subsistence romance of it, I tried a small, bland bite. I could get used to it.
“All things Korean are so popular now,” said G., as we relaxed with a second big bottle of Hite (“Clean and Pure!”) Korean beer in lieu of dessert. On the walls at Choi’s Garden, there are photographs of young Korean rock/ pop idols and other celebrities. There’s also a photo of a hulmone weaving at a loom. There are traditional Korean misty mountain landscape paintings. And there’s colorful splashy contemporary work, both abstract and cartoonishly figurative. A glass case running down the center of the room contains traditional brassware, pottery and celadon porcelain.
Second visit: Lunch. Tried the Kal Bi plate again. Just as good, and this time, to my relief, served sans scissors. Compared with Cho Dang’s, say, “It’s more crusty,” said my friend J.C. approvingly. However, the BBQ chicken plate ($11.99) was nondescript and much too salty. I’d give Pearl’s chicken higher ratings.
The real revelation, my madeleine moment if you will, came with the Fish Chun (jhun, $12.99) à la carte. Unlike the bright yellow, oil-slicked beignets one finds everywhere else, these shells were floury, brown and heavy/crispy, in contrast with the flaky, light, fresh pollack inside.
That Choi’s Garden should remind some local Koreans of family kitchens is no coincidence. Founder and owner Cho-Suk Choi is a South Korean mother of three, says spokesperson Tammy Chang. Although Choi had no prior restaurant experience, “She loves to cook, to feed her family,” Chang adds.
The cook in Choi’s kitchen is Ju Hyun Lee. Chef Jae Young Choi (no relation) prepares the raw meats for yakiniku, assisted by Young Ho Choi, the owner’s brother.
“She has what we call a big hand: She loves to give people food,” Chang says of Choi. Love, indeed, is the ingredient that distinguishes good home from most good restaurant cooking, and when the two combine, as happens at Choi’s, the diner feels like a privileged child.