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Seoul Garden
****
Out of a possible five
$

Delicious additions span sweet to spicy

It seems to happen rarely, but when one of your favorite places gets even better, it is simply awesome.

I have long frequented Seoul Garden for its unique Korean specialties, and the little hole-in-the-wall place in an old gas station on Coliseum Boulevard rarely disappointed.

I still consider its Korean hot-pot dish, Dolsot Bibimbap, one of the best ethnic dishes in this city, and its Man Do Korean dumplings are some of the best Asian dumplings around.

There have been previous changes to the restaurant, which dropped the Chinese a few years ago and added Korean barbecue – a growing trend at the time. The Chinese dishes, which I honestly never consider, were added back to the menu recently along with more Korean specialties.

And the new specialties I tried were fantastic.

My eyes lit up and my belly growled when I saw a photo on the wall advertising Spicy Pork Belly. Prepared like the barbecue items on a sizzling cast-iron skillet similar to ones Mexican restaurants use for fajitas, it may replace the bibimbap as my favorite dish there.

The sliced pork was fatty, tender and unctuous with just a little crispness on the edges, which reminded me that it was the same cut of pork that bacon comes from.

It was coated in a bright red sauce that was spicy, but not so spicy you couldn’t taste the meat or pick up the sweetness of the red peppers used to make the sauce. It came with crisp, clean, fresh romaine lettuce leaves for wrapping, and it just got better with each bite.

The Hot Kimchee Pork Bulgogi was actually spicier than the spicy belly, but that would not come as a surprise to anyone who has tried Seoul Garden’s kimchee. This traditional pickled cabbage is so hot that there are folks who, like chicken-wing lovers, travel from place to place trying different versions to see whose is hottest.

The pork in this dish was sliced thin like the belly but was so lean that no fat could be seen. I needed several refills of water, more than one pot of Seoul Garden’s zesty sweet ginseng tea and extra napkins to wipe my sweaty brow, but I still enjoyed it. And it, too, had layers of flavor beyond the heat.

The Kalbi – marinated beef short ribs – were also top-notch. These sesame-seed topped ribs were fork-tender and perfectly flavored with the salty-sweet kalbi marinade, which is made using Korean soy sauce. I picked all of them clean.

The Chicken Bulgogi was also cooked in a soy-based sauce, but this one was much sweeter. It compared favorably with any Korean barbecue I have had in the area. The meat was moist and succulent and was great when wrapped in that crunchy romaine.

The best new twist at Seoul Garden is that all dinners include a pork spring roll, one pan-fried/steamed or a deep-fried dumpling, and a piece of crab rangoon. The spring rolls were crispy and the vegetables inside were fresh, the crab rangoon was just OK and the steamed dumplings were delicious.

I actually enjoyed the deep-fried dumplings as much as the pan-fried and steamed Man Do during these most recent visits. They were crisp, not at all oily, and actually more texturally pleasing than the damp steamed ones. The ground pork, vegetables and seasoning used to make the filling were perfect, as was the sesame-soy dipping sauce.

Seoul Garden has always provided complimentary tasting portions of kimchee, mung bean sprouts, crispy fried seaweed, black beans, fish cakes and pickled cucumbers. But there was a new addition to these offerings, too. The little dish of pickled zucchini may have been the best free treat of all with its sweet, slightly spicy red pepper vinaigrette.

Although the tasting dishes and complimentary fried goodies are more than enough to start your meal, if you still crave an appetizer, the chicken wings are a good place to start. The seven that came in a small order were a bit small, but they were crispy and the chicken was moist. They were glazed with a scrumptious, sticky-sweet “special” sauce that had had just a pinch of red pepper to offset the sweetness.

The Kim Bob appetizer was just too odd, however. This Korean sushi roll of sorts was made by wrapping seaweed around rice, vegetables and what appeared to be a hot dog, which was the strange part. I guess I don’t need sushi at my favorite Korean place, and I sure don’t need sushi with a hot dog in the middle.

The hot and sour soup also fell flat. This thick, dark, murky soup had plenty of tofu, egg and mushroom and was topped with fried batter bits, but it was not hot or sour, and I ended up adding some kimchee to it just to give it some kind of flavor.

But for the most part, finding flavor was not a problem at Seoul Garden. It has always been a favorite of mine, and I can hardly wait to see what its next new wrinkle will be.

Restaurant: Seoul Garden

Address: 1820 Coliseum Blvd. W.

Phone: 484-0395

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Cuisine: Korean

Handicapped accessible: Yes, except for restrooms

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes, but no menu

Menu: Chicken bulgogi ($10.95), Hot Kimchee Pork Bulgogi ($10.95), Spicy Pork Belly ($11.99), Kalbi short ribs ($13.95), dumplings ($4.95 for 6), Kim Bob ($4.95)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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