With only two authentic restaurants, Korean cuisine is criminally under-represented and under-appreciated in Jacksonville's food scene. While it doesn't strike me as being too odd, per se, this is perhaps a bit tragic since there are some strong stylistic parallels between Korean cuisine and that of the great American barbecue with its heavy focus on meat and plethora of side dishes.
Perhaps the oversight is due to innocent ignorance, perhaps its that these places are so hard to find. Sam Won Garden, the only Korean restaurant I've tried in the area, looks more like a strip club from the parking lot and is right next to the Duval County Tax Collectors office; definitely not some place one voluntarily travels. Even inside, the intoxicating scent of charred livestock and the tables with cooking appliances do little to dispel the suspicion that at any moment the place could erupt with an explosion of lights, debauchery, and dollar bills. But in spite of the strange ambiance, an excellent meal awaits any who dare enter.
However, I must issue one warning. Beware the soju. Soju is a Korean spirit traditionally made from rice with an alcohol content that can land anywhere between 20% and 40%. It's similarity to sake and it's inherent sweetness can deceive the curious consumer and you may find yourself far more inebriated than you'd planned.
It's easy to experience a slight tinge of sticker shock when glancing at Sam Won's menu. Most of the prices really aren't that high and, when you consider the amount of food you end up with, you're actually getting quite a deal.
A great place to start is the kalbi, a meal highly recommended for any lover of good barbecued beef. Kalbi, or galbi, is a dish made with beef (or pork, but it's just beef at Sam Won) short ribs marinated in a ganging (Korean soy sauce) based sauce. It would be far too arduous a task to accurately describe how delicious this dish is but it's enough to make a borderline vegetarian question their aversion to consuming meat. The kalbi can seem a bit pricey at first but there's enough food for two and, of course, there's also the sides.
Korean cuisine is famous for its variety of side dishes. At Sam Won, the side dishes are included with the meal and can essentially be replenished until you're satisfied (come on now, let's not be too greedy). There's the traditional kimchi (pickled and fermented vegetables, usually cabbage), sprouts, various vegetables, tofu, squid, and an assortment of other small offerings. While not quite the same as coleslaw, potato salad, and baked beans, one can easily see the parallels drawn to American barbecue.
Another great dish to try is the Dolsot Bibimbap. The literal translation of bibimbap is mixed rice and my first encounter with this traditional Korean meal took place thousands of feet above the surface of our pleasant little planet. Although I quite enjoyed the first experience, I knew full well that airline food always pales in comparison to meals available at ground level so I was compelled to try it again on my next visit to Sam Won.
Dolsot bibimbap is served in a VERY hot stone pot, so hot that the meal continues to cook for minutes. In addition to the rice (which is pleasantly caramelized around the edges because of the extreme heat), the dish contains beef, mushrooms, cucumber, zucchini, bean sprouts, daikon, sea weed, lettuce, and some other vegetation. An egg is cracked on top and quickly fries in the heat. The flavor is complex and rich and the meal is wholly satisfying; the perfect remedy for a deep hunger.
The next time you're in the mood for barbecue I'd suggest a slight deviation towards the Korean variety. But beware, one taste of kalbi and you may never again be able to stomach Sonny's or Bono's monotony.
Sam Won Garden Restaurant
4345 University Boulevard South,
Jacksonville, FL 32216