Like any good food writer, I keep a running list of restaurants to visit. However, with openings, closings, and just living life beyond dining (gasp), I don’t always make it everywhere. In particular, sometimes I miss more established restaurants and/or those outside the immediate areas where I work and live. It’s not like I’m regularly perusing Mechanicsville Turnpike, for example, looking for a bite to eat. A few friends and I recently discussed our desire to try some less hyped, more off the beaten path spots and set up a monthly meetup called RVA Hideaways. We all throw spots onto the list and randomly choose one before the meet up. In September, we hit Richmond Korean restaurant 88 Garden (6135 Midlothian Turnpike, 804-231-5388).
Pulling up to 88 Garden on a Tuesday evening, I can see how this unassuming white storefront would be easy to pass. However, I suggest you grab a group of friends like I did and stop by for dinner. Inside, you’ll find a combination of regular dining tables and Korean Barbecue tables with grills in the center. Unless you don’t eat meat, choose a Korean barbecue table, duh.
What to Eat at 88 Garden
The 88 Garden menu is long with about eight pages of appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, and barbecue meats. This is why bringing friends is beneficial: you can order plenty and share it all. Our selections were as follows:
Steamed Mandu (Dumplings)
Obviously homemade, 88 Garden dumplings arrive hot and steamed to slippery perfection. While we enjoyed the fresh flavor, we all agreed we might try them deep fried next time to see how the crispy texture might enhance the classic flavors.
Sundubu Jjigae (Spicy Kimchi Stew with Tofu and Sliced Pork)
Umami fans, this is your dish. Crunchy kimchi and soft tofu bob in a rich, complex broth that’s studded with bits of pork, adding even more flavor. The stew comes in a big, bubbling mama bowl. You are encouraged to share it in accompanying baby bowls along with a bit of rice that arrives in individual metal bowls to keep it hot.
Chicken Gganpunggi (Chicken Wings)
Everything a chicken wing should be, the 88 Garden wings arrived hot, crispy and smothered in a spicy, savory 88 Garden special sauce. This is the dish I keep hearing my friends say they want again.
Kimchi Jeon (Kimchi Pancake)
One of my favorite dishes, this thin, savory pancake stuffed with kimchi was crisp on the edges and soft in the center. It wasn’t greasy and the crunch of the kimchi made for a satisfying texture. Don’t forget to dip it in the tangy sauce you’re given at the beginning of your meal. You can also ask for hot sauce, which is more complex than it is spicy, and is great to smother on everything.
Korean Barbecue at 88 Garden
To have your Korean barbecue cooked at your table, you must order at least two meats. As with most Korean restaurants, 88 Garden’s Korean barbecue includes banchan (literally meaning “side dishes” in Korean). This smattering of little plates of condiments provide complements and contrasts to your meat, so try them all. Bonus: they come with unlimited refills.
As for the meats, we chose Dwaeji Bulgogi (spicy marinated pork) and Saeng Galbi (grilled unfrozen beef ribs). I’m pretty sure we were pegged as clueless Americans, so our server grilled our meat for us at the table. Depending on how much the staff thinks you know what you’re doing and how busy the restaurant is, you may also need to cook your meat yourself.
Our server also instructed us to make little lettuce wraps with a leaf of romaine lettuce, a bit of banchan and some of the savory sauce that came with our meal. In case you haven’t noticed, I get excited when I get a bite of food that combines lots of flavors and textures, so this was right up my alley. I preferred the marinated pork to the beef, although both possessed tender with a tasty fire-grilled finish. I think next time I’d try more of the marinated meats over the plain ones.
88 Garden has Karaoke Rooms!
Before we left on our visit, owner Soon Han showed us a few small rooms where you can dine and sing karaoke. Yes please! There is one large room featuring a long Korean barbecue table and a spacious area for singing. I’m still contemplating what type of event to host there.
Service at 88 Garden
Han is the sole owner of 88 Garden and if you stop by you’ll most likely run into her cooking, serving, or both. Service was timely, enthusiastic and helpful, but a family-owned restaurant with a smaller staff does mean a more relaxed meal. Go to enjoy your food and company, not to rush out the door.