SOUTH GATE GARDEN KOREAN RESTAURANT The crowd of side dishes is its own pleasure. David Belisle
South Gate Garden Korean Restaurant
3703 150th Ave SE, Bellevue, 425-603-9292

Mon-Sat 11 am-10 pm, Sun noon-10 pm.

There's something intensely satisfying about seeing a former Denny's reimagined as a Korean restaurant: The familiar booths redone in darker shades, plants and sculptures crowding the entryway, and, of course, industrial-strength vents installed over do-it-yourself barbecue tables. Move over "Moons Over My Hammy"; it's time for "But-Sut-Soon-Doo-Boo"!

I got hooked on Korean food long ago, thanks to family friends who used to grill beef marinated in sweet soy and call it kalbi. It was the single most exotic thing I ate for the first 10 years of my life. I think I also like Korean food because my father's family were Polish Jews who knew long cold winters like those in Korea, and whose cooking used flavors--borscht and pickles and sauerkraut--that all have affinities with the cabbage-y ferment and pucker of Korean side dishes like kimchee.

For the most part, unfortunately, Korean food is a food of Seattle's perimeter: Lynnwood, Lakewood, and, in this case, the Factoria-Bellevue border (an exception, Kimchee Bistro, is a welcome newcomer to Broadway). My friend, a honey-voiced Korean-Canadian, went with me to help me get to know the menu better. She steered me away from most of the seafood dishes (monkfish casserole, broiled croaker!), admitting reluctantly that most Korean restaurants use disappointing fish, and regretting that a younger, more ingredient-focused generation of Koreans has not started opening its own restaurants yet.

As the food came out, so did about a dozen small plates of banchan, the merry side dishes that give Korean meals a Christmas-morning feel. Sure, no one really needs all those dishes with one meal, and yes, the little dried squid strips coated in chili and sugar taste quizzical, like Gummi candy with an aftertaste of the ocean, but the crowd of dishes on the table is its own pleasure. My friend reported that, to make room for jars and jars of these banchan, "most Korean families have two refrigerators." At her childhood home in Alberta, she said, "My grandparents would even make their own miso paste, which stinks." They would bury ceramic jars of the fermenting stuff in the yard, even as her mother protested that they had a perfectly good refrigerator (or two).

Korean meals are also action-packed: a sizzling stone pot made our tofu stew ($7.95) hiss and bubble with menace, but it cooled off quickly when ladled into stainless steel bowls, and the tofu and mushrooms were impossibly tender in the chili-warmed broth. Our waitress wielded kitchen scissors to snip Hae-Mool-Pah-Juhn ($12.95), a thin, broad seafood frittata, into bite-sized squares. Inside its eggy matrix were bits of shrimp and octopus, all laced together with long scallion strands. Despite the warning about seafood, the shrimp and octopus were nothing but tender and sweet--it's a great rustic dish.

We could have gotten still more action by cooking our own food at our table, but we let the kitchen do the work, and out came slices of short ribs marinated in sugary soy kalbi sauce ($15.95) that was grilled to a sticky shellac. The meat veered to sugar-sweet, but it still triggered some youthful pleasure deep inside. We ordered another Korean standby, Dol-Sot-Bee-Bihm-Bob ($9.95)--rice with vegetables, beef, and a lightly fried egg--which, like the stew, was served in searing hot pot. You mix it all together with hot sauce, and the egg cooks and binds the rice, forming a lovely crust where it sticks to the pot. South Gate's version is a little flat--both the sauce and the greens lacked a little punch.

But forget about old standards. On this visit I discovered something new to love: Chic-Naeng-Myun ($9.95), cold buckwheat vermicelli with a texture like cellophane noodles, served in a light beef broth spiked with a bit of vinegar. Our waitress, who had worried that we non-Koreans wouldn't like the cold soup, brought out her scissors again and snipped the noodles into manageable bits. Thin slices of marinated cucumbers and Asian pear floated with the noodles. The effect, after the eggy and sweet main courses, was not harshly sour, but a palate-cleansing wash, more bracing than grapefruit sorbet--a new rival for borscht, come summertime.