The Korean Secret Garden in Santa Clara – Bi Won Restaurant

    It’s late April and the wind still blows cold. The tiny coffee plant I got last winter is still grudgingly hiding in my room for warmth, while I desperately crave a big hot soup with kimchi. Since coffee leaves wouldn’t make either great broth or pickle, we set out to Sunnyvale.

    But driving in Sunnyvale on an empty stomach is no fun. The signs and loops are out to get you, and your tummy makes you rush running around. It was supposed to take less than thirty minutes, yet we’ve been driving for over an hour. After lots of wrong turns and backtracking eastward and westward, we thought we wouldn’t make it before closing time. Then as Hope faints, we see it. Secret Garden timidly stands at the end of a strip mall’s parking lot.

    The restaurant may not have a snazzy outlook, but its spacious interior is quite nice. I’m a fan of booth seating and its privacy, but it’s a luxury in Berkeley. Here, the mahogany tables and thick cushion benches fit snuggly in enclosing of wooden planks, so that conversations can be spilled out somewhat comfortably and elbows do not touch. But the loveliness of food on neighboring diners’ plates is still in sight. It’s torturous to look at others eating merrily while you’re hungry, you know. Thank goodness the banchan is served quickly. Within minutes after placing our orders, plates after plates come out that I barely have enough time to snap a picture of them all. As light shines directly onto the crisp white melamine, the color contrast is so brilliant I suddenly don’t want to disturb any plate with my clumsy chopsticks.

    From left to right: napa cabbage kimchi, nokdumuk (녹두묵 mungbean jello), kongnamul (콩나물 boiled and seasoned soybean sprout), and very tasty firm red strips (name help, please? is it eomuk strips in chili sauce?) nakji bokkeum (낙지볶음 fried octopus). The soybean sprouts are bigger, fatter, and nuttier than the usual mungbean sprouts, which means they’re more satisfying. The nokdumuk tastes as translucent as it looks, a refreshing heal congealed and coated in soy sauce that playfully wobbles on the tongue.

    To the right of the kongnamul are cucumber kimchi, radish kimchi, eomuk (fish cake), and crunchy green strings (again, I love it, but I don’t know its name. My guess is sliced seaweed?) seaweed with gogumajulki (고구마줄기 dried sweet potato stem). Something about rings of jalapeno in banchan bugs me, just like jalapeno in banh-mi. Not that I have anything against Mexican peppers, but the taste doesn’t belong.

    Just as I thought the banchan list ended at eight, a generous plate of japchae (잡채) fuming sweetness comes…

    … with two stylish inox cups of miyuk gook (미역국). Whether or not it can enhance my brain function, it well enhances the sizzling goodness of the dolsot bibimbap (돌솥비빔밥).

    White rice mixed with veggies, beef strips, egg, and gochujang (고추장) until crimson has been Mudpie’s No.1 favorite for a while now. He treasures every spoonful and guards the forming crust at the bottom against any careless scooping. At the end he then scrapes and eats the well seasoned crust with the joy of children eating s’mores. He orders it almost every time we go to a Korean restaurant, I feel like he should have a bibimbap blog much like Adam Kuban with Slice. And he claims this dolsot bibimbap is the best he’s had.

    Meanwhile I am busy slurping what I have dreamed of for days: a hearty beef soup. A bowl of wet steamed rice comes with the galbi tang (갈비탕), but I wish they had given me more. The rice goes quickly as I pour the mild yet sensuous broth over it, with a piece of meltingly soft short rib, and maybe a bit of kimchi. I even eat the shiny green chives, since they now taste so sweet.

    When I get near the end of the big soup bowl, a pleasant surprise surfaces: a small bundle of dangmyeon (당면 cellophane noodle) has been there all along, soft, clear, quietly soaking up flavors from the darling broth. I have rarely felt more gluttonously satisfied after a meal dined out.

    Address: Secret Garden (Bi Won Restaurant)
    3430 El Camino Real
    Santa Clara, CA 95051
    (408) 244-5020

    Money matters: $26.11 – dinner and happiness for two.

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