Although they are not as well known in the United States as Japanese or European gardens, Korean gardens have their own traditions and culture, and a visit to South Korea often involves visits to well-maintained outdoors spaces in Seoul and other cities. Of course, the word “garden” can be used loosely to describe any sort of space devoted to sense and sensation, even if it’s entirely indoors without a potted plant in sight. That seems the case with K-Food Garden, one of the stalls in the Market Eatery food hall at the H Mart supermarket in the Mesa Asian District.
H Mart is located at the southwest corner of Dobson and Main, diagonally across the street from the Sycamore/Main light rail station, which has recently had an “Asian District” point of interest sign added to its branding. Bike racks are found east of the supermarket entrance, somewhat hidden but at least shaded. K-Food Garden is the second food stall on the left in the food court, located past the Paris Baguette bakery and Da Pan. The latter is not only K-Food Garden’s neighbor, but also its complement with a menu that has some similarities but little overlap.
As at all of the food court tenants, the menu is displayed on overhead boards with names, prices, and photographs of the twenty different entrees offered. A few additional special items may appear on hand-written signs below. Written descriptions of the food and ingredients are minimal, but the person at the counter can answer questions about specific dishes. In Korean cuisine, dishes not explicitly labeled as containing meat or tofu often contain one or both protein sources, so customers with any special dietary needs or preferences should ask appropriately.
Customers then find a table and wait for the automated voice to call the number matching the one on the receipt. Most of what comes out of the kitchen behind K-Food Garden’s counter focuses on stews, soups, and stir-fry entrees. A good place to start is the kimchi stew, a hot stone bowl full of spicy fermented cabbage and vegetables in a tangy sauce with cubes of tofu and bits of pork shoulder. Unlike soft tofu soups, the bean curb in this stew is intact and firm, and the broth is hot but not quite bubbling with the volcanic intensity seen in sundubu soups.
Instead, the ingredients stand on their own while reinforcing one another’s strengths. To add even more sustenance, it’s also possible to upgrade to a kimchi stew combo with a portion of grilled meat of the customer’s choice on the side. Miso stew is another hearty Korean dish with soy taking over for cabbage in the fermented role. Soups include beef vegetable, which seems like it contains an entire bag of bok choy from the nearby H Mart produce section. It’s satisfying in the same way as a Mexican cocido de res, especially when rice is added to the bowl.
Spicy beef soup is an entirely different creation, substituting shredded beef for cubes of chuck and adding egg to the bowl. In another analogy to Mexican food, this seems almost like a caldo de machaca if such a thing existed. Cold noodles, a Korean specialty that seems especially relevant during the hot half of the year in Phoenix, are offered with either a side of bulgogi or with a smaller piece of meat and fiery gochujang sauce. Either way, the bowl of broth and starch is served with a pair of scissors, a necessity for cutting the cold strands into manageable pieces.
Stir-fry options include spicy chicken, served with not only steamed rice, but also a side of soothing slaw, and beef with mushrooms. These meals, like all of the soups, stews, and noodles are accompanied by a three-compartment dish of banchan, cold vegetable dishes that might include spinach, potatoes, cabbage, bean sprouts, cucumbers, squash, radish, or eggplant on any given day. A final choice on the menu is a combination of Korean ramen with coiled noodles and a serving of kimbap, a dish similar to sushi rolls but without vinegar in the rice or raw fish.
As with the other stalls in the food court, K-Food Garden offers only a limited selection of bottled water and canned soda to drink and no dessert. Possibilities for both can be found at the nearby bakery or at Snowtime, the boba tea and fish cone vendor across the room. While the twenty items offered on the menu are by no means a comprehensive look at the entirety of Korean cooking with its regional variations and cross-cultural influences, they do offer a stroll through what might be seen as a metaphorical garden of some of the country’s most appealing food traditions.
1919 W. Main St., Mesa AZ 85201