Thrills, chills, and a bit of zing

Top: Ilsong Garden serves a variety of small side dishes with each entrée. Middle: Ilsong's menu also includes Chinese dishes such as (front to back) orange chicken, sesame shrimp, and lemon chicken. Bottom: Oh jing uh buk-um, stir-fried squid with vegetables, is delivered to the the table sizzling. (Photos by Laura McKenzie)

Explore the Korean options at Ilsong Garden

Don't panic: I'm not going to tell you to try the cod intestines soup; the goat soup will do very nicely. There are 21 soups, not counting soupy noodles, at Ilsong Garden, and any of them might present a modest challenge to the culinarily cautious.

Though there long have been Korean restaurants in San Antonio, a legacy of the United States' military involvement on that divided peninsula, you are probably not alone in thinking that the cuisine has emerged here only recently, largely as a result of the success of Go Hyang Jib - also known as the Korean BBQ House. Replacing Wang's Garden, a closeted Korean restaurant with a Chinese front, Ilsong is out of the closet. It has a more extensive Korean menu, an approach that seems more rustic and down-to-earth than the popular KBH, which helps extend our understanding of the cuisine.

It takes time to work through the menu, but a familiar place to start is the hal mul pa jun, the seafood and vegetable pancake with a crêpe-like texture, suffused with oyster flavors, studded with squid, and laced through with scallion. It's great with a little of the chile-spiked soy sauce and will help pass the time while waiting for the goat soup. Meaty, though not aggressively "goaty" in flavor, the soup is also intensely rusty in color. The hue doesn't imply cauterizing heat; the soup scintillates but doesn't sear, and its pleasant zing is balanced by lots of leafy greens of indeterminate origin.

The small dishes that traditionally accompany entrées are a mainstay of Korean cuisine. Here you'll find everything from the addictive and ubiquitous kim chee to deep-fried dry shrimp, bean sprouts, cubes of sweet potato, strips of fried tofu, more burdock-like leafy greens and a bowl of cubed daikon floating in an exotically perfumed broth.

Next up was another Korean icon, a variation on the classic bul go gi. Often made from marinated beef, this dish used thin slices of pork paired with green bell pepper and onion. Presented on a fajita-style platter, the mound of meat was bathed in a gravy that was pleasantly hot and vaguely fruity. Served with lettuce leaves as a kind of "refresher" wrapper, the bul go gi came across as very sophisticated comfort food.

I'd order it again in a heartbeat.

I'd also be perfectly happy revisiting the oh jing uh buk-um, or stir-fried squid with vegetables. The squid, to exaggerate only slightly, was gigantic in the manner of The-Octopod-That-Terrorized-Tokyo. Although it was scored in a handsome diamond pattern, no attempt had been made to dice the tentacles into unidentifiable chunks. Enhanced by a sprinkling of sesame seeds and bolstered by red bell pepper, onion, and scallion, the squid was pleasantly spicy and utterly seductive, contrasting with cold sweet-potato noodles (hwa naeng myun) that tingled a tad but were characterized by complex, perfumy flavors. The diner can choose to incorporate the tangle

   Ilsong Garden

6905 Blanco
Hours: 10am-10pm Mon-Fri, noon-10pm Sat, 1-10pm Sun
Price range: $20-40
Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible

of delicate noodles, which were bedded on a thick chile sauce, whose heat was balanced by thinly sliced zucchini, crunchy daikon, hard-boiled egg, and a few slices of beef. (An accompanying bowl of cold "soup" with a haunting, vinegary taste, performs a similar role.) Yet for all its flavorful twists and turns, this is also a dish of textural thrills and chills. You have try it - with chopsticks, of course, just to increase the challenge.

Korean diners were the only other patrons on our visit, and one group was served a particularly handsome whole fish. Cooking wells in wooden tables would be useful for the Japanese-style shabu-shabu listed on the menu. This and more remains to be explored, including the curiously labeled "Side Dishes" of crab or monkfish. Big enough to share, according to our accommodating waiter, they're also priced at $23.95, so there must be more there than is immediately apparent. Yes, exploring Illsong will take some time.

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