[UPDATE: Biwon Secret Garden Restaurant closed in December 2015. They reopened as "Akira Sushi by Secret Garden."]
Having lived in LA for seven years near its vibrant Koreatown and frequenting South Korea for the past two years, I've been spoiled by tasty and diverse Korean fare. From cheap street food to affordable 20-course meals to ridiculously expensive dishes, the thought of Seoul tugs my taste buds and has me wanting to visit again. Like right now.
Back in the Bay, I'm in search for the best K-food. Though born and raised in San Jose, I've heavily explored foreign cities more than my own hometown. It may take time to uncover where my ideal tteokbokki is served as well as mouthwatering and tolerably-priced Korean BBQ. Challenge accepted! After all, eating in your city is cheaper than a round-trip international ticket. My search begins now and you are invited to peep into my culinary explorations.
Our first stop? Secret Garden. Bookworms will think Frances Hodgson Burnett. The less innocent will need to clean their minds with soap.
Located in an unassuming plaza between a karate studio and dental office, the Korean Secret Garden Restaurant has been serving Koreatown San Jose for over 35 years. It's changed owners only once in recent years and for the better.
Secret Garden is called "Biwon" in Korean. There was period of three months where my mother insisted, "Let's eat at Biwon," on a weekly basis. As she's sensitive to salty and spicy foods, Biwon has been gentle on her stomach compared to other Korean restaurants. She says this joint is "clean." Everyone's meaning of "clean" differs. To me, "clean" food is vegan. To her, "clean" food is no use of MSG.
A typical visit to Secret Garden greets you with a set of complimentary banchan (side dishes). During our past experiences we were given 12 different kinds of banchan. Japchae, fresh kimchi, fish cakes, and seasoned spinach are commonly sighted. If you get lucky, candied sweet potato will make its special appearance. In our latest visit though, only nine banchan were served. Perhaps the chef went on vacation and the restaurant had to reserve their goods.
Banchan portions are just enough to tickle your appetite, but not too much to spoil it. If you need more of anything, ask your server. They are attentive and will happily provide you with another batch.
Grill galbi (short ribs) at your table paired with a bottle of soju. If you're in a healthy mood, go for Dolsot Bibimbap (Stone Pot Mixed Rice/돌솥비빔밥). Vegetarians can order this one without meat. As for me, I enjoy my mushroom, soybean sprouts, egg, carrots, zucchini, spinach, and radish with a handful of soft marinated beef, all laid on top of a bed of white rice. Enjoy the sizzlin' soundwaves as your Dolsot Bibimbap approaches. Drizzle on that gochujang sauce for additional flavor and dig in!
My mother gets her usual bowl of soondubu (soft tofu stew). There are various types of soondubu served. Tonight she orders the Beoseot Soondubu (Mushroom Tofu Stew/버섯순두부), which as the name hints, consists of mushrooms along with other vegetables. My mother cannot handle spicy very well, but she savors this stew as her pores loosen up to let out steam.
What's the verdict? Seeing that there are few Korean restaurants my mother will dine at, I will be back at Secret Garden in no time. The flavors are simple; a quality sought-after depending on your diet. I'd come to Secret Garden for everyday eats. For flavor heaven, I continue my search in the Bay. Stay tuned for my next Korean food adventure!
Korean Secret Garden Restaurant
3430 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95051