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Eastern Garden sheds unique Taiwanese dishes, emphasizes Korean fusion 

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click to enlarge Taiwanese beef noodle soup, momentarily revived for us. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Taiwanese beef noodle soup, momentarily revived for us.

Food carries memories, both personal and cultural. It's hard to think about Amy and Tom Hwang's beef noodle soup without thinking about the way Tom's eyes light up when he talks about it.

"When I was 10, my brother and I would go and get it for 30, 35 New Taiwan Dollars [about $1 USD]," he says. They'd get it fresh as can be, usually from one of the single-dish food carts for which the island is known.

It's a national dish for Taiwan, brought over from China after World War II, when former Chinese President Chiang Kai-Shek and the nationalist Kuomintang party colonized the island, due in-part to a series of military defeats by the Chinese Communist Party.

Sadly, this massive bowl of culinary culture isn't on the menu at the Hwangs' restaurant, Eastern Garden. When they moved into the former Korean Garden spot last August, they did serve it as one of three Taiwanese menu items, along with a "risotto" and calamari. But due to poor sales, they dropped the soup and risotto.

So we try the calamari on a first visit, fried in a light batter that lands between tempura and beer batter, served under salt and white pepper. The pieces, bigger than typical rings, chew tender and delicate, bearing floral notes and a modest spicy kick.

Ditching normal anonymous-visit review procedure for the sake of education, we call ahead of a second visit and ask Tom and Amy to prepare the two removed dishes for us, specially (purchased full price with a hefty tip). The massive bowl of soup bears chunks of spoon-tender braised beef, buttery fat still hanging on, and mash-tender carrots in a rich broth bearing a prominent star anise aroma. But the flavor's rich and meaty, brightening with vinegar and chili oil served on the side. In Taiwan, it comes with pickled cabbage, but Tom says he couldn't find a source that wasn't heavy on preservatives.

The Taiwanese risotto — risotto in name only — arrives as a dead-simple dish of seasoned ground pork over rice. Like the soup, it's pure comfort food, again featuring the anise-forward Taiwanese spicing.

Tom reiterates that Eastern Garden operates as a Korean restaurant, first and foremost. That means leaner cuts of beef, more sugar and less star anise in sauces, and spice heat coming from gochujang instead of chili oil. The restaurant's Korean recipes stay true to what Tom and Amy were taught by former owner Ramona Burns (who still operates Taste of Korea on Peterson Road). Mostly, the menu features authentic Korean items like kalbi.

They've also expanded on existing fusion items like Burns' bulgogi cheese fries. The bulgogi po-boy, for instance, delivers seasoned, thin-cut beef on a big, soft, toasted bun, nothing else. We yearn for a little kimchi and gochujang, but the bulgogi comes tender and flavorful, and Tom says the simplicity meets customers' desires. Additionally, they've placed bulgogi in tacos and turned bibimbap into a burrito — both sound options.

Putting these Korean standards into forms more recognizable to American diners has paid off; Tom says the fusion items are their biggest sellers. It's easy to praise successfully meeting diners' comfort zones, as not everybody is a culinary adventure-seeker. But missing that soup breaks my food-nerd heart, and I can only hope they'll give it a chance on the menu again some day — it's well worth the memory.

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