What to do when the Thanksgiving leftovers begin to pall? For many Houstonians, the answer over the coming days will be Mexican food. I’ve got another suggestion: go for an even bigger change of pace with Korean. Specifically the spicy soups and stews at the charming Bon Ga Garden Restaurant, a familial little place on the city’s original Spring Branch Korean commercial strip.
There’s a warmth at Bon Ga that gathers you in immediately. It’s in the gentle incandescent lighting, the pretty carved-wood doors to the private dining alcoves, the smiles on the faces of the hard-charging waitresses — especially if you enter with a toddler in tow. You’ll be given a choice of seating, so it’s best to know in advance that you probably won’t want to commandeer a cook-it-yourself gas grill table here. That’s because the various Korean barbecues so popular with Americans aren’t the best bet here.
You’ll have to order two of the expensive sliced-meat platters to qualify for a do-it-yourself grill. Which is fine by me. I’ve had much better galbi (marinated beef shortribs) — more elegantly trimmed, less seriously sweet — at other Houston restaurants, so I’d just as soon order a more moderately priced platter of thin-sliced beef tongue (my favorite barbecue choice here) and let the kitchen cook it for me.
Indeed, my friends and I lollygagged so much over our cooking process that our efficient waitress despaired of us and took over, flashing the tongs right and left, unrolling a neat curl of tongue here, slapping down some rings of onion there, and peeling apart the folded hunk of ribs so that it lay flat on the grill. I think she did it in the name of fuel efficiency.
That tongue was a revelation, though: mild and rich and beautifully crisped along the edge of each thin slice, so that it began to curl a little. Even diners who don’t think they like tongue might well be swayed by tongue like this, tucked into a frilly leaf of lettuce with some vibrant, chile-spiked bean paste and a bit of grilled onion. It’s a tongue taco, Korean-style.
A bonus with the tongue (or any barbecue platter) is a bowlful of spectacularly good green salad, simply dressed with sesame, frisky red-chile vinaigrette and long tendrils of scallion. This is one of the most refreshing salads in Houston. I’ve got to learn to make it at home so I can have it whenever I want.
It would be much harder to duplicate the captivating little dishes of banchan — various pickled or brined vegetable relishes — that are served with every meal here, whether it’s barbecued meats or the savory soups and stews. The napa-cabbage kimchi alone bursts with so much tart-salty red chile flavor that it’s almost shocking. I love the mixing and matching you can do with the nicely bitter strands of spinach, the crunchy brined bean sprouts, the gently sweet shreds of pickled daikon radish.
There might be sweet-hot rounds of zucchini laid out in the constellation of dishes that covers the table; or faintly funky, insidiously good slabs of fish paste with an omeletlike texture. The lineup changes, but the fun of combining flavors and textures with whatever you’re eating never wanes. A nice array of banchan makes Korean cuisine, to me, the most interactive of eating experiences. You’re constantly considering and customizing the next bite.
My favorite dishes here not only cost a modest amount (far less than those barbecue platters) but leave me feeling amazingly light, a boon during the holidays, when excess reigns at home. Bon Ga’s tofu stews (say “soon dubu”) have lots of red-chile depth and silky bean-curd, although I have yet to succeed at getting the kitchen to add a freshly cracked egg to them. (By the time all the dishes hit the table, it’s easy to grow so overwhelmed you just go with the restaurant’s flow.) I’ve enjoyed both the seafood and the kimchi versions, the egg notwithstanding. Just spoon a little of the stew on top of your small bowl of beautifully mauve-tinted rice (the hue comes from black beans, I am told) to get the full effect.
Sound to hot for you? Consider the splendid dumpling soup. Think of it as a Korean riff on wonton soup, brimming with plump, garlicky ground-beef dumplings and topped off with dramatic dark shreds of dried seaweed. It’s so comforting and delicious I kept fantasizing about having an entire broad bowl of the stuff all to myself. I plan to do just that more than once this winter.
But what about the bibimbap, you ask. Never fear: Order the dol sot version of this kaleidoscopic, its rice crisped to bronze in a hot stone bowl, and you may find that it’s your favorite bibimbap in town. Mine jumped with red chile and crisp shards of vegetable, with the rich yolk of an egg mixing in to make the whole thing luxurious.
You can order bibimbap in a variety of versions, including seafood (with middling squid and octopus) or kim chi, the ubiquitous fermented cabbage. Truth to tell, the seafood dishes here seem purely average, and a squid-and-octopus stir-fry was so rubbery as to be a disaster, at least in Western terms.
The big exception to my seafood caveat is the seafood pancake, that delightful, crêpelike Korean appetizer that is best ordered “extra crispy” here, and consumed with a ladling of chile-soy-sesame dip. The pancake is oily and lacy and mild, threaded through with green lengths of scallion and blameless curls of shrimp. If you order the large size, it can serve five to six people, leaving a little to squabble over.
Although it may not seem like the season for cold dishes, Bon Ga’s cold noodles with young radish is so graceful and cleansing it’s worth a try. Transparent glass noodles come in a bowl of lively sweet chile-lashed broth studded with ice cubes to keep the dish chilled. In the center, the noodles are stacked precariously with greens, cucumber, beef, scallion and an ivory crown of egg. The slices of young radish in the mix are as sweet and delicate as fresh pear once they’ve soaked up the soup. It’s a lovely dance in the confines of a bowl.
There is beer and rudimentary wine to be had, although you may have to persist to get a true accounting of what’s available. (I ended up with Asahi, a Japanese beer whose light, almost sweet profile went well with this spicy food.) There’s a big red push-button on each table you can use (if you dare) to summon the waitstaff, who tend to get swamped as the place fills up in the evening. Such scurrying I have never seen — mostly cheerful, if harried.
The owner makes the rounds in classic host mode, tousling the heads of children and greeting his regulars. Even if you have to beg for a check, you may depart, as I did, feeling as if Bon Ga is the kind of place you can shrug into like a well-loved sweater. Suave and polished it is not, but it fills me with the kind of capsaicin-fueled well-being Houstonians treasure. A final, complimentary bowl of chilled, sweetened rice broth with a pine nut floating on top sees me happily out the door.