On a chilly fall night in Kalamazoo, Mich., the big, blue front doors of a small Korean restaurant on Westnedge Avenue open to reveal all the coziness of a homey living room. An open sign blinks in the window. “You okay?” the balding restaurant owner, Mr. Lee, 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. The reddish-brown, nutty tea replaces chilled water on tables at Lee’s Garden Bibimbop in Kalamazoo. The food is delivered with packets of cutlery that add to the restaurant’s quaint feel: a paper napkin, mismatched silver spoon and fork, and chopsticks. A quick glance around the restaurant reveals chopsticks feverishly dipping and diving into dishes from bibimbop to bulgogi.
While the rice and beef based dishes at Lee’s Garden are delicious, and entrees between seven and nine dollars are reasonably priced, the food might not be enough by itself to make this restaurant a Kalamazoo favorite. Instead, Mr. Lee’s warm charm adds just enough to the dining experience to make every meal special. With their silent, but caring service, he and his wife make patrons feel like they’re at a quiet dinner party—one where the hosts are just as fascinating as the food.
Mr. Lee and his wife work together in the kitchen and the dining room. It’s clear that Lee’s Garden isn’t just a place of work for Mr. and Mrs. Lee. Pamphlets for Hosanna Church, a Korean American Presbyterian Church, sit on the counter next to menus. Christian worship music plays on a speaker somewhere in the restaurant and makes it feel more and more like a small, urban church; three windows are outfitted with deep colored stained glass.
Outfitted in a blue apron with green trim, Mr. Lee carries orders of mandoo dumplings on red cafeteria trays with individual servings of soy sauce. These shiny fried dumplings with a bubbly golden skin are a must-order for any Lee’s patron. The crescent shaped appetizers are filled with pork, green onion, and garlic and are easy to pinch between chopsticks. “Three for each of you,” he said one night as he set the plates at a booth in a corner. 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 after their meal.
The sweet service found at Lee’s Garden 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 the customers decide what to order and almost silently delivered their food. 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 it in the kitchen to make sure each plate, bowl, and cup is hot and fresh in diners’ mouths. Customers are meant to eat as they’re served. 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. Though this dish is sometimes considered one of the spiciest in the world, Mr. Lee delivers it to each table without warning of the potential burn first-time kimchi eaters could experience from their seemingly tame and strangely chilled bowls. Several pieces of yellowed cabbage are soaked in red sauce and packed into each side serving.
Some diners pinch a piece of cabbage between chopsticks and shake off the sauce in the hopes of reducing the intense flavor. One might call kimchi an acquired taste, delicious after the mouth is numb to the spice. Experienced diners add some rice to dilute the heat in this sour and salty side. The red kimchi sauce drips down the side of the bowls and mixes with soy sauce and white rice on the tables as meals at Lee’s continue.
The spicy, sour kimchi contrasts with the sweet, sesame, barbecue taste of the bulgogi entrée. After a few bites of kimchi, customers might expect this dish to be similarly spicy. Instead, bulgogi at Lee’s Garden is a pleasantly sweet surprise. It is a must-order for any diner. Narrow 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 a full bowl of white rice on the side. The sauce tastes like sesame paste and soy sauce and diners don’t let the sweetness go to waste; some sop the extra up with their rice.
The strips of beef in bulgogi, tender, moist, and soaked in broth, offer a pleasant contrast to one of the most disappointing dishes at Lee’s. The fatty, chewy chunks of chopped beef in jobchebop are mixed with tough, half-baked carrots and rice noodles beside a mound of oily rice. On a table cluttered with small bowls of spicy kimchi, plates of bulgogi, and a large dish of yukgaegang soup, the plate of jobchebop might be left nearly full. The greasy and bland flavors of this dish don’t match the rich flavors of the other plates and bowls. Still, this steaming plate may offer a subtle, nearly bland introduction to Korean cuisine for diners whose taste buds aren’t quite ready for kimchi.
Lee’s Garden is not a restaurant for customers whose stomachs are already full. It’s almost obligatory to order appetizers ranging from $2.99 for five mandoo dumplings to $9.95 for a kimchijeon pancake platter and entrées with rice and kimchi between $7.95 and $12.99. Each portion is large enough for one person, though many customers order a few entrées to share. In fact, the full plates and bowls at Lee’s Garden are best that way. No matter what the order, Mr. Lee’s friendly allure leaves most customers happy, full, and ready to return to this small, blue restaurant.