With the number of Korean expatriates living in the Philippines, Korean restaurants are now a dime a dozen, becoming almost as common as your friendly neighborhood lechon manok / liempo stalls. Fortunately for these restaurants, Filipinos have taken to Korean cuisine like ducks to water, so a lot of them have built steady clienteles by mere virtue of word of mouth. One popular Korean restaurant tucked in BF Homes, Paranaque is Sam Won Garden.
At Sam Won, each table is fitted with a tabletop charcoal grill and a pull-down exhaust fan. Despite the proliferation of tabletop grills, the place is relatively smoke-free, probably due to the exhaust set-up. It’s quite wonderful, really, enjoying Korean barbecue without smelling like a barbecue pit yourself afterwards.
As is standard with Korean restaurants, a parade of sides were the first to arrive on our table. Caramelized baby potatoes, kimchi, pickled radish, fishcake, bean sprouts, sweetened dilis — a lot of them, I don’t even recognize but we gamely tried them all. Aside from the sides, we were also given a helping of salad in a Korean-style vinaigrette. The store’s proprietor approached our table, extolling the virtues of the veggies in the salad. Apparently one of them is Korean kinchay (unless I heard incorrectly) and it’s great for blood circulation.
Soon enough, out came a cart of beef and pork. We ordered the usamgyup or beef belly and the samgyupsal or the pork belly. The usamgyup was thinly sliced, much like sukiyaki-cut beef but in bacon-sized proportions. The samgyupsal was on the thicker side, like a whole slab of pork belly cut into thick bacon. What surprised me when the meat came was how one of the servers started cooking for us! She started laying the meat and the garlic on the grill, making sure each piece of well-marinated meat was cooked perfectly. No trial and error for first-timers here. Just yummy meat goodness, tucked in a fresh lettuce leaf, slathered with ssamjang, and a bit of grilled garlic. The rolls made with paper-thin pickled radish and Kkaennip (perilla leaves) were lovely too.
Our server was especially helpful, making suggestions on what to pair, telling us what sauces to use — even grilling kimchi for me when I mentioned I’m not a fan. The grilled version was supposed to be less spicy, but for me, what did the trick was that it wasn’t as pungent as the usual kimchi.
Another dish we ordered was the dolsot bibimbap. This mixed rice dish was cooked in a dolsot or a traditional stone pot. Our server asked whether we wanted it spicy, to which we said yes. She added a generous dollop of gochujang (spicy chili paste), then mixed it well, making the raw egg cook from the retained heat of the rice and of the pot. The effect was a sticky, tender mixed rice made creamy by the egg, with requisite burnt bits at the bottom. One can live on this dolsot bibimbap alone!
Aside from the beef and pork barbecues and the dolsot bibimbap, we also ordered for some japchae, that sweet, sesame-laced Korean glass noodle dish. We found ourselves too full with the other dishes though, so we ended up just eating a few mouthfuls of the japchae. Seeing our leftovers, the owner approached us, telling us that the best way to enjoy leftover japchae was to mix it with fried rice. How’s that for value added?
Our lunch at Sam Won Garden was absolutely wonderful. Despite it being a hot summer’s day, the place was cool enough and smoke-free enough to make the meal enjoyable. The dishes were packed with flavor, making me promise myself to return for the usamgyup and bibimbap. The only two problems that I see with Sam Won is that it’s hard to park since their spaces are very, very limited, and the fact that I was craving for the same dishes a few hours later. But then, I guess that can be remedied by another visit, right?