- Will Lee
Cooking your own food at a restaurant may seem anathema to most people. While most will agree that cooking can be enjoyable, eating out offers a respite from the hassle (and dishes). But there’s a way to both enjoy cooking with all of the creature comforts of eating out without breaking the bank at a kitschy fondue restaurant.
Kiku Garden, an authentic Korean BBQ restaurant (located at 4527 Goldfield, off Rittiman and I-35) is great for either breaking the ice on a first date or kicking back and having fun with a group of friends. A popular spot frequently patronized by soldiers from Brooke Army Medical Center, Kiku Garden is also quite possibly one of the last few truly specialized Korean BBQ restaurants in San Antonio. In addition to serving authentic Korean fare that can be found at the other Korean restaurants nearby, Kiku Garden has a trump card that the other local restaurants cannot match: large rectangular tables ringing the main dining area with grills and air vents built into the middle of each so you grill your own meats. Kiku’s unique grills include big blocks of coal for flavor and gas ranges to keep the coals heated.
Korean BBQ is slightly different from your normal Korean fare. The main crux revolves around a cut of meat called bulgogi (bool-go-gee), thinly sliced marinated beef classically grilled over an open flame and served piping hot with rice and other sides. The marinade consists of a mix of soy sauce, sugar, garlic oil, and fruit juice among other ingredients that give the meat an incredibly savory flavor. While nearly all Korean restaurants serve bulgogi, it’s normally cooked in the kitchen. At Kiku Garden, they bring it out completely raw in a pool of marinade with a pair of tongs. While potentially intimidating, you’ll soon discover that cooking it is actually a very easy process — and the freshness of bulgogi that you prepare yourself is unbeatable.
Kalbi (gal-bee), or wang kalbi (wong-gal-bee) is the next step up. This is a marinated beef short rib, consisting of bone-in beef rib with a long trail of beef still connected. This comes with a pair of scissors to maximize sharing potential. The well-marbled and marinated beef rib cut explodes with flavor.
Each meal comes with steamed, slightly sticky rice and a variety of side dishes known as banchan for each member of the dinner party. Banchan is a collection of small, cold dishes with flavors designed to stimulate and enhance your main course experience. Kimchi, a fermented spicy lettuce, is of course the standard, but Kiku frequently provides anywhere from five to seven dishes of additional items that range from pickled seaweed and spicy radish to cooked potatoes. These are provided for you in a lottery-type fashion, and it’s always fun to see what type of banchan comes out, even if some of the more obscure dishes won’t be to everyones’ taste. Lettuce wraps are also available; make your own by wrapping meat, rice, some banchan and bean paste in the lettuce.
When you arrive at the restaurant, tell the waiter that you want a “barbeque table” and order with confidence, knowing full well that you are about to have a great meal. The waiters have a great sense of who’s new and who’s not, and will come to your table and help cook the meat for you if you let them. Go once with your friends to try it out. Order the same number of dishes as the number of people in your party; each dish includes an appetizer, soup, and three meats. After you’ve mastered the grill, you’re ready to take a date to show off your innate culinary skills. The best part about it? No dirty dishes to wash. •
Authentic hands-on Korean BBQ for a delicious and tactile cooking experience.
Bulgogi; wang kalbi
Entrées $12.99 -$23.99