On a fall night in Kalamazoo, Mich., the big, blue front doors of a small Korean restaurant on Westnedge Avenue open to reveal all the warmth and coziness of a homey living room. “You okay?” the balding restaurant owner asked a group of customers one night with a smile and a nod. He placed three Styrofoam cups of barley tea on a yellowed table. “It’s Just toasted barley,” he said. “Barley tea.” The reddish-brown, nutty tea replaces chilled water on tables at Lee’s Garden Bibimbop in Kalamazoo. Most customers seem to enjoy the light flavor in place of water with ice. A silvery warmer, a large thermos full of barley tea sits next to the door. Customers feel free to refill their white cups throughout their meals. If customers would rather not leave their tables, Mr. Lee brings refills. By the end of a dinner at Lee’s, some customers have a stack of four or five Styrofoam cups next to their empty plates, depending on the level of spice and heat in their dishes.
The food is delivered with packets of cutlery: paper napkins, mismatched silver spoon and fork, chopsticks. The green striped chopstick packages are scattered around the booths at Lee’s. Around the restaurant, chopsticks hover over metallic bowls of bibimbop, beef or tofu and vegetables served over rice, they dip into large ceramic bowls of yukgaejang, a spicy beef soup with rice noodles and sprouts, and they dive into a shallow black bulgogi dish, sweet beef piled high with onions.
Shiny fried dumplings with a bubbly golden skin arrived first. The crescent shaped appetizers filled with pork, green onion, and garlic. In a blue apron with green trim, Mr. Lee carried the dumplings on a red cafeteria tray with plastic dishes of soy sauce in individual servings. “Three for each of you,” Lee said as he set the plates at a booth in a corner lit by the yellow light of a gold chandelier. Five girls ordered the appetizer: ten dumplings for $4.99. Instead, the ceramic plate held fifteen. The girls didn’t pay for the dumplings anyway. “The mandoo is free,” said Mr. Lee with a grin when the girls went to the counter to pay.
This is Lee’s Garden; a small, blue restaurant perched on a little hill on Westnedge Ave. An open sign blinks in the window. Mr. Lee and his wife work together in the kitchen and the dining room. Pamphlets for Hosanna Church, a Korean American Presbyterian Church, sit on the counter next to menus. Halfway through a meal at Lee’s contemporary Christian worship music might begin to play on a speaker somewhere in the restaurant. Three windows are outfitted with deep colored stained glass.
It’s the warm charm at Lee’s Garden that makes it a restaurant worth returning to. Mr. Lee personally serves each table. The pink, leathery booths and the gray metal chairs scattered around tables in the white dining room might seem lonely if not for Mr. Lee’s attentive, yet relaxed and customized service. He is present, but not overbearing. On one night, only three couples dined in the restaurant between 6:00 and 7:45. At other restaurants, one might wonder why more diners didn’t arrive, but the dining room at Lee’s still felt full. Mr. Lee quietly helped each customer decide what to order and almost silently delivered their food on red cafeteria trays. He hovered at one table for a moment to watch the first bites of a dish, but then quickly disappeared with a swish of his blue apron to join his wife in the kitchen. While not a chatty member of the dinner party, Mr. Lee brings a lot to the table.
He delivers each meal item as soon as his wife finishes cooking in the kitchen to make sure each plate, bowl, and cup is hot and fresh in diners’ mouths. If a customer at Lee’s Garden tried to wait politely for each member of a party to be served, his food would be cold by the time it was finally pinched between chopsticks. That’s not the way it works at Lee’s. Customers are meant to eat as they’re served to ensure proper warmth. The first bite of mandoo might surprise a first-time customer when a scalding green onion or bit of pork lands on the tongue with a spray of hot oil or grease.
In fact, almost everything at Lee’s is warm but the kimchi. A bowl of this spicy fermented cabbage comes with each entrée the same way fries and potato chips casually accompany burgers and sandwiches at other restaurants. Customers pull pieces of kimchi from small Styrofoam bowls and add some rice to dilute the spice in this red, sour, salty side. The red kimchi sauce drips down the side of the bowls and mixes with the mandoo soy sauce on the table.
The spicy sour kimchi contrasts with the sweet, sesame, barbecue taste of the bulgogi entrée. Customers might expect this dish to be hot and spicy. They might prepare several cups of barley tea and white rice in anticipation of sweltering spicy heat. Instead, bulgogi at Lee’s Kitchen tasted sweet. The temperature is what classifies this dish under the “HOT! HOT! HOT!” heading on the Lee’s Garden menu. Strips of beef are heaped into a bowl and mixed with chopped onions, peas, and carrots and left to marinate on a wooden board with white rice on the side. A wooden board keeps the warm, black bowl from burning the dining table.
The strips of beef in bulgogi are tender and moist, soaked in broth. This beef offers contrast to the fatty, chewy chunks of chopped beef in the jobchebop, mixed with tough, half-baked carrots and rice noodles mixed with the beef beside a mound of oily rice. On a table cluttered with small bowls of cold kimchi, plates of bulgogi, and spicy yukgaegang soup, the plate of jobchebop was left nearly full. This dish just doesn’t offer the same rich flavors as the other plates and bowls. Still, while not exciting and flavorful, this steaming plate offers a subtle, nearly bland introduction to Korean cuisine.
Lee’s Garden is not a restaurant for customers whose stomachs are already full. The beefy, fried rice dishes with sides of kimchi are meant to be shared. If not distributed and eaten immediately, plates at Lee’s might go cold.