Why, my editor wearily asks, do I keep writing about Korean restaurants that require a 20-mile drive to Lynnwood or Federal Way? Because the restaurant explosion along 99 to the north and south of the city is one of the most vital things occurring in the Puget Sound food scene today. And it's an explosion invisible to most Seattleites--not just because it's far into the suburbs, but because Korean restaurateurs make it hard for outsiders to figure out what they do best.Even in the Korean-populated 'burbs, Korean restaurants can't shake the curse of being an "ethnic restaurant" in America. It's the same curse that leads Tamil cooks in Seattle to make godawful versions of Punjabi dishes and Salvadoran restaurants to serve wretched Cal-Mex burritos. With Korean restaurateurs, the curse takes two forms: First, they pack the menu with dishes they know Westerners will recognize (like japchae and spicy pork bulgogi), even if their clientele is primarily Korean-American. Second, they generalize. In Seoul, a restaurant will serve just a few specialties; you go to one spot for braised pork shank and mung-bean cakes, another for grilled beef and beef tartare. Not many restaurants here can fill a 50-seat room with people who want only jokbal or kalbi. So most places create an exhaustive menu, resulting in a hell of a lot of mediocre food.But when you have 30 or more Korean restaurants in one stretch competing for the same discerning audience, as we do in Federal Way and Lynnwood, this strategy doesn't quite work. The places in Koreatowns North and South have to distinguish themselves. So they make a peculiar compromise. While each place prints a menu listing 40 to 50 dishes, each actually cultivates six to ten true specialties. Unfortunately, these specialties aren't singled out on the menus. The dishes are made known only by word-of-mouth or through advertising in Korean-language media.I asked two Korean-speaking friends to help me translate the restaurant ads in the latest edition of the 2009 KCR Blue Book. It's the Northwest's Korean-language business directory, which I plucked from a six-foot-high stack outside the H Mart, one of Puget Sound's two competing Korean supermarket chains, in Lynnwood.The restaurant that most piqued our curiosity, Garden, advertised its specialty as Cheju-style cuisine, or the regional food of South Korea's answer to Corfu: a rocky island off the southwest coast and a popular vacation spot. What could Cheju cuisine possibly be, we wondered. When we drove to Federal Way for a meal, it turned out that Garden's regional specialties weren't nearly as interesting as its seasonal, organic fare.When we asked the waitress about the restaurant's Cheju food, she picked out two dishes for us (easily identified by the word "Cheju" in the name). The first was a soft-tofu stew. While the classic mainlander version has a fire-engine-red broth and curds of delicate tofu, the Cheju-style stew starts with a deep, sea-rich anchovy stock, the flavor amped up with soybean paste. From it we fished cubes of firm tofu, a small cracked crab whose shell we sucked meat from, fat mussels, and even a sea whelk. She set up the larger dish, Cheju duroochiki, on a table burner, and we watched what looked at first like a bright-red haystack sizzle and melt down for a few minutes before we began spooning the fragrant mass onto our plates: thin slices of pork rimmed with just enough fat to moisten the meat, smothered in bean sprouts and green onions and coated in a mild red-pepper sauce. We picked up tufts of the sprouts and pork and rolled them in lettuce leaves."The lettuce comes from our organic garden," the owner told my friends in Korean. "We grow many of our herbs and vegetables there." Now for a high-end Pacific Northwest bistro, having your own herb garden is as much a cliché as holding wine dinners with high-priced tastings and winemaker handshakes. But an Asian restaurant doing the same? Never seen that before.Garden also proved that the links between local and seasonal aren't limited to English-speaking foodie circles. The back page of the menu is devoted to seasonal offerings. Right now it lists a half-dozen chilled noodle dishes in various guises, and samgyetang—a poached young chicken stuffed with ginseng, which people eat to restore all the nutrients sweated out during the sticky, sweltering Korean summers.The dish that allowed us to taste the full spectrum of Garden's own produce was the ssambap, a $13 item that filled the entire table. (Ssam means "to wrap," while bap is "rice.") One platter held a fan of Korean lettuce—elongated, ruffly leaves with blushed tips and a small hint of bitterness—and purple-veined dandelion leaves. These were all grown in the owners' garden, the waitress informed us as she set the platters down, as were most of the vegetables on a second plate of cooked leaves: heart-shaped Korean shiso; pale-green cabbage; squares of glossy, olive-hued seaweed; fuzzy pumpkin greens the color of moss. Alongside these platters came bowls of rice, a plate of grilled pork, a chocolate-colored fermented soybean paste called ssamjang, and a clay pot containing a dense, squash-spiked, meaty soybean stew. All of this, of course, was in addition to the array of saucers filled with panchan, kimchi, and other pickles and vegetables that accompany every Korean meal, no matter the region.With this palette, we constructed our own rice rolls. We'd place a tablespoon of grains and a slice of pork on one end of a lettuce leaf, topping it with a few bean sprouts or some spinach, and then roll the leaf around the fillings. Then we'd dip the bundle into the ssamjang, enjoying the sharp crackle of the cold leaves, the warm pork, the winy rush of the soybean paste. Our server instructed us to follow a different procedure with the cooked leaves, swabbing these rice-meat-vegetable bundles through the pungent, meaty stew.Then there were the panchan, each a garden's worth of vegetables in itself. They included the standard magenta-hued cabbage and radish kimchi, bean sprouts, and potatoes cooked in caramel sauce, but also dense-fleshed, pale-green squash half-moons; cucumbers pickled in soy so long that their deep, salty crunch clanged against the teeth like a tin gong; and a conflagration of peppery, flowery, and minty herbs squirted with a chile-vinegar dressing. The only other time I had tasted some of these herbs was in the southwest provinces of Korea.Communicating in English with Garden's waitstaff wasn't painless—they were much chattier, naturally, when I came with a Korean-speaking friend than on a second visit without her. Still, they were game to help out non-Koreans. Unlike at most Seattle restaurants, where you can expect the server to fervently affirm the wisdom of your order, regardless of what you choose, it pays to pay attention to the reactions from the waitress at Garden. Whether ordering in Korean or English, we found that the dishes we picked for ourselves without securing a nod from her generally didn't have the intensity of the ones she recommended or approved of: A bowl of soojebi—a ground mung-bean stew we ordered purely out of curiosity—had little flavor, and I felt the same about the thin, two-note meuntang, a hacked-up pollack boiled in a simple chile-red broth. And when choosing between two types of mondoo (steamed dumplings), I should have noted more closely the set of her mouth. The skimpy, lackluster half-moon-style tong mondoo I ordered on one trip occasioned a pursed frown, while on another she seconded more enthusiastically an order of gogi mondoo—fluffy, round steamed buns stuffed with beef, pork, ginger, and onions.I wish I had some spell for unlocking the secrets of the restaurants in the Korean 'burbs, whether Douglas Adams' babelfish or, at a minimum, some phrase to memorize phonetically. ("Please feed me like I'm your grandfather"? Perhaps.) There are more than a hundred Puget Sound restaurants listed in the Blue Book. If there are local, seasonal, regionally specific restaurants like Garden hidden to all but Korean speakers, who knows what other specialties hide behind the Hangeul listings? Until Paul Allen funds my campaign to convince Korean restaurateurs to change the way they do business, each of you is on your own. There are 150,000 Korean-Americans living in Washington. Surely someone can hook you up.Price Check
Garden Korean Cuisine 1636 S. 312th St., Federal Way, 253-941-2483. Open for lunch and dinner Mon.–Sat., closed Sun.
Gogi mondoo: $6.95
Cheju haemool tookbaeki: $11.95
Cheju duroochiki: $19.95
Jengbahn gooksoo: $13.95