Choi's Garden standout for Korean food lovers
By Lesa Griffith
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Lesa Griffith
Growing up in Honolulu, my idea of Korean food was Kim Chee II. There's nothing wrong with Kim Chee II I still go once in a while but it gave me the notion that Korean cuisine is a variation on the plate lunch and bi bim bap was as exotic as it got.
It took living a block from New York's K-town East 32nd Street to learn that Seoul food goes way beyond kal bi and kim chee. There is enough of a market in New York to support restaurants that specialize in one thing only Han Bat is known for its soup dishes that get broth from two steaming vats, and you can guess what Mandoo Bar serves. I discovered a world of rich, thick sauces, and endless varieties of soups, stews and noodles of varying degrees of heat.
Since the 1980s, the number of Korean restaurants in Honolulu has grown exponentially, and I've returned to find menus with a lot more than kal bi and meat jun.
Choi's Garden isn't new it's been around for three years but is still something of a best-kept secret where Korean-food aficionados such as KBFD manager Jeff Chung and the wife of Yummy's Korean BBQ owner Peter Kim can be spotted.
Like other Korean spots, Choi's Garden has the requisite grill-top tables and vinyl booths but stands out with its lime-green walls and room-dividing Plexiglas case holding Korean antiques such as vases, tea implements and pitchers. Owner Choi Hyo Sook, as lithe as a ballet dancer, oversees the room and her army of servers, each with varying levels of English.
Honolulu's pool of Korean-food eaters isn't yet big enough to support specialty restaurants, forcing eateries such as Choi's Garden to cover all the bases, which it does well, and with top-quality ingredients, some of them imported from South Korea.
If you go for the grill, selections run from cow tongue to a seafood mix, and come with all kinds of accouterments immaculate red-leaf lettuce leaves, spicy miso paste, a soy dipping sauce which makes for fun interactive dining. ("Grab that piece before it burns!" "Yeah, you wrap the meat like a lettuce sandwich.") But take a few naked bites. The beef brisket, for example, seasoned with just sesame oil and salt, reminds you just how good food can taste. The finely sliced strips are pure, beefy meat flavor; you can accent it with another natural flavor from the little foil cup of garlic slivers. The no-bone kal bi's marinade is subtle, the meat tender (unfortunately, also with that tenderizer-induced vaguely gelatinous consistency).
With each order of yakitori, you get either a giant silver bowl of house-made vermicelli-like noodles swimming in a chilled broth or a small crucible of bubbling hot kim chee or miso "stew." On a muggy night the cold noodles are a refreshing break you add a splash of rice vinegar and a dollop of mustard. And I can't wait for a cold rainy winter evening to scoop up more of the thick, spicy miso soup dotted with tofu cubes and strands of green onion. What're you in the mood for?
You can order that addictive broth in any number of permutations such as dubu chi ke (tofu pot stew), al chi ke (fish-egg stew) or daegu chi ke (cod stew), to name a few.
After the spice, a hot stone pot filled with a purplish wild rice is an earthy equalizer. Dotted with ginkgo, chickpeas, chestnut bits and a single date, the dish is pure comfort. You can get the dol sot with dried pollack imported from Korea ("You can't buy it in the market here," said the server) and red with spicy marinade, it tastes like dried cuttlefish.
Every Korean restaurant has a seafood pancake and Choi's version is alluringly crisp, its pieces of squid finely chopped (although the green onion isn't).
Located in the low-rise, nondescript K-zone behind Wal-Mart, Choi's Garden might be off your beaten eating path, but it's a place worth cultivating.
Reach Lesa Griffith at email@example.com.