Picky eaters tend to shy away from new foods, particularly Asian cuisine. And Korean food, if for no other reason than it's less available, remains more exotic, more mysterious to the Memphis diner than Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and so on.
Yet there are familiar ingredients prepared in unusual ways that will please many Southern palates.
They have barbecue. We have barbecue.
We both like our cabbage.
We like our tables set with pickles and condiments, and the Koreans are the kings of condiments.
You likely have at least a passing idea of what kimchi is, even if you've never eaten Korean food. A few years back, it was named one of the five healthiest foods in the world and started appearing on shelves in mainstream groceries.
It's mostly cabbage fermented with salt, chilis and garlic, though a lighter version known as summer kimchi is a fresh pickle made with daikon, cucumber and other vegetables (by fresh, I mean there's no fermentation).
It's spicy, pungent and deliciously addictive.
Let the "mostly" in the preceding paragraph clue you in to the fact that there is a wide world of kimchi. Standard cabbage kimchi might be made with leafy Napa cabbage or firm chunks of green cabbage. Bachelor kimchi could be fermented radish or turnip. Fish sauce or fermented fish might be used, the kimchi might be buried, and there are regional varieties. The Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul has documented 187 kinds of kimchi, past and present, according to Wikipedia.
When kimchi and fresh relishes are served in various bowls with a meal, the collection is called banchan. At Asiana Garden, meals are served with many bowls of assorted (and changing) condiments, from a couple of kimchi varieties to bean sprouts, seaweed salad, soy and chili mixes, and a delightfully tangy fermented bean paste ("Korean ketchup," my half-Korean friend said). One dish of a shredded tuber dusted with sesame seeds was familiar but elusive, and it turned out to be barely blanched potato.
And we haven't even gotten to the real food yet.
A pajeon, or pancake, is either a nice way to start your meal as a shared appetizer, or it would make a fine meal on its own, with the banchan set-up. We tried both the haemul pajeon, with green onion and seafood, and a simple pajeon with green onion and a light-skinned zucchini. "Pa" means green onion, and it's a plentiful ingredient, lending both texture and flavor. The pancake is not as eggy as an omelet as it does contain flour, but it's much more similar to an omelet than an American breakfast pancake. ("Korean pizza," my friend explained.)
Top the savory slices with your choice of condiments, make liberal use of the soy-chili sauce, and enjoy.
An ample meal for two is a pajeon and either a bowl of dol sot bibimbap or an order of jab chae ("Korean lo mein"), clear noodles with beef and vegetables in a light, flavorful sauce.
Don't touch the bowl of the dol sot bibimbap, even if your server fails to mention that it's hot. There will be heat radiating from it that you can feel at arm's length. And it will stay hot until you're done eating.
The dish is a delightful mix of cooked, fairly sticky rice topped with a wide variety of slivered vegetables such as carrot, cucumber, onion, zucchini and dried seaweed on top. Thin slices of beef are included, and a barely cooked egg, too. Take your chopsticks and poke the yolk to mix it with the other ingredients, and dig in. Use your banchan as desired, and know that while you're eating, the rice is browning on the bottom of the hot bowl. Carefully pull it off when you make your way down, and enjoy a sheet of crunchy rice, popped right in your mouth or dipped in little soy sauce first.
The kimchi chi gae is the Korean version of a hot and sour soup, and it resounds on both elements. The sourness and the depth come from the fermentation, instead of from lime and fish sauce as in the Thai tom yum. The heat is from the chilis. The soup is not as complex or as herbaceous as a tom yum, but it's delicious.
Oh, yeah -- the barbecue. Many of the tables have grills in the center where you can cook your own meat. And while the server will cook it for you, it's best to do it yourself. First of all, there's nothing to it. The meat is cut and marinated, so all you have to so it move it around on the grill until it's cooked to your desired doneness. And second, your acquired doneness will be well-done if you rely on the server to do it. The restaurant is not adequately staffed for table service that requires that much attention. Our sliced short rib was burned and we had to start over. The bulgogi, which is beef marinated in Korean barbecue sauce, was tender and delicious.
The way to eat the meat is to spread the savory bean paste (the Korean ketchup) on a crisp romaine leaf, top with the banchan of your choice, follow with meat, and roll it up and eat it (or just fold it over like a taco).
The food seems more authentic to its roots than some other Asian cuisine that has taken to Americanized tastes. The restaurant, which has been in the same location for about 15 years, is family-run. Service was slow at one visit and spotty though earnest and helpful at the other. Go with patience and the spirit of adventure with you.
Address: 5992 Mount Moriah.
Telephone: (901) 795-6147.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Reviewer's choices: Dol sot bibimbap ($10.99); kimchi chi gae ($9.99); pajeon ($12.99); bulgogi ($13.99)
Alcohol: Wine and sake.