Before I went to Lee’s Garden, my only prior experience with Korean food involved my friend’s mother’s dumplings. I recognized Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un and that was about it. I thought the Korean restaurant might include the usual “Asian restaurant” motifs: dragons, gold, and red. Embarrassing. I tried my best to set my assumptions aside and went to Lee’s Garden for dinner armed with two Korean food experts and two novices like me.
I can now say I have eaten Mrs. Kim’s dumplings and Mr. Lee’s dumplings. Mr. Lee’s were better, no offense to my friend’s mother. In fact, the golden mandoo appetizer was my favorite part of dinner at Lee’s. I was able to pinch the crescent shaped dumplings between two chopsticks without making myself look too silly and I understood the dish’s ingredients and consequent flavors without much problem.
What’s more, I got to know Mr. Lee through the dumplings. I first noticed his charm when he set a plate piled high with mandoo on the table I was sharing with four of my friends and told us he included three dumplings for each of us instead of the two we ordered. I was hooked, fascinated by Mr. Lee’s unwarranted kindness. I couldn’t understand why this quiet man was being so nice to five girls who hadn’t said anything to him with the exception of an order for mandoo. Then, I realized that we were one of two parties in the restaurant and we weren’t actually receiving any special treatment. Mr. Lee was like this with everyone; he quietly helped the other customers order too.
My interest in Mr. Lee and his wife continued when Christian worship music began to play over the stereo system. My friends and I first thought a choir had started singing in the kitchen. Then I noticed the stained glass windows, the multiple organs in corners of the dining room and the Hosanna Church pamphlets on the counter. I couldn’t quite figure out where I was.
Dinner at Mr. Lee’s was like a field trip. Nothing I ate or experienced met the expectations I had before the meal, but I was comfortable in my booth seat and I went along for the ride.
I had expected to find the same decorations and dishes I was used to seeing and eating at Asian restaurants at Lee’s Garden, but I didn’t. I was relieved—those decorations sometimes give me nervous tummy aches. I worry that my participation in dining at Chinese and Thai restaurants contributes to some cycle of colonization I should know about. I cross my fingers that I’m not cheapening someone’s culture by eating pad thai and sweet and sour chicken take-out.
Lee’s Garden had no dragons, no red and gold, no costumes. The only discomfort I felt upon dining there was anxiety over spiciness and heat. A sufferer of acid-reflux, spicy food makes my face crinkle and my stomach turn. I took a few Tums and survived a few bites of kimchi and spicy soup. The barley tea served at Lee’s Garden also assisted in calming my fears. I drink several cups of green and herbal tea every day, and I was thrilled by this new flavor. I think I finished four cups on my first visit to Lee’s.
My review experience at Lee’s Garden helped me realize why I sometimes shy away from Asian restaurants. I get nervous about spice and, for some reason, colonization. If nothing else, I come away from this with a new vigor for trying the dishes not only at Korean restaurants, but also the one’s I’ve been afraid to try at Thai, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants. I’ll take some extra Tums and enthusiasm with me. After dining at Lee’s and meeting Mr. Lee and his kind wife, I feel much better. I think entering new dining experiences with openness to adventure makes everything okay.
Someday, I hope to learn more about Korean food and culture. Maybe repeat visits to Lee’s Garden will help.