An acquaintance insisted that some of the best Korean food hes ever eaten was at a restaurant in Vallejo. Having driven nearly every commercial street, I couldnt believe that I had missed a Korean restaurant. No clues in the yellow pages either. I turned to the web and found one Vallejo restaurant that popped up on Korean language pages, Princess Garden. I had noticed this place before from the exterior it looks like a generic Chinese restaurant (no Korean characters) and its menu on the web gives no hint of Korean influence. When I called, the hostess confirmed that Korean dishes are offered. However, she could not tell me any of the dishes because she said, theyre on a Korean menu and none of us knows how to read Korean. Huh?!?
I was intrigued enough to give it a try. Located in a strip mall, the interior is more deluxe than the shopping center exterior lets on. In the main dining area, celadon walls and jade green silk upholstery on rosewood chairs offer a soothing color scheme. Glass cases displaying Chinese ceramics, bronzes and porcelains dot the room. The other side of the restaurant offers a Mongolian barbecue buffet. Posted signs admonish customer to not waste ingredients. Also on the buffet line are sweet and sour pork, fried potstickers, fried rice, and fried shrimp. I beat it back to the main dining room.
My first visit, I asked my Cantonese waitress about the Korean menu (which is not translated into English). She dashed back into the kitchen to bring back her own copy annotated in Chinese. A second waitress from somewhere else in China came over to help her. They were both incredulous that someone with a Chinese face would want to order from the Korean menu and tried to dissuade me saying that the dishes were too hot for non-Koreans to eat. They explained that the chef is of Shandong background from Korea and knows how to make Korean dishes, as well as the Mandarin food that is the specialty here.
The first outing was good enough to warrant return visits for more from what they call the Korean menu. Ive been offered raw onions with bean sauce as a freebie, but never any kim chee. Once a small dish of cucumber spears stained blackish-brown by a soy-based marinade was presented. Served cold, these were firmly crunchy and had a pleasing salty-sour taste.
The Korean-Chinese standards Ive tried so far are:
Zha jiang mian A nice version with soft squishy noodles pulled into fine strands topped with sweetened black bean sauce, chopped zucchini and onions, and delicious irregular shaved pieces of grilled rare beef steak.
Sweet and sour beef One time my waiter said its his favorite Korean dish here. Slices of beef were battered and deep-fried then tossed with a mildly tangy and pinapple-sweetened thickened sauce. Slightly pickled veggies (napa cabbage, slices of cucumber), pineapple and slivered wood ears add texture and flavor notes. The sauce was too thick for my tastes and I probably wouldnt order it again, but I liked the overall balance of sweet and sour in this dish.
La jiao rou (hot chili pepper beef) The best dish Ive had here. A generous stir-fry of ropey strips of rice powder-coated beef, masses of slivered fresh jalapeño peppers (judging from the number of slices probably six or seven whole chilis); slightly larger and paler green shreds of green bells peppers; fine shreds of bamboo shoots, wood ears and dried black mushroom; slices of fresh champignon; sections of scallions; and softened but still somewhat crisp sweet onions. As the waitresses promised, this dish is very spicy, but really delicious. This was my first time to sample this standard, and now I know why its one of tanspaces favorites.
Chao ma mien This spicy seafood noodle soup was the one real loser here. The noodles are housemade and good quality, but the rest of it was downhill. The broth was monotonal in its spicy heat and had little other flavor. The seafood was limited to two dried out prawns, a chemical-infused scallop, and past prime calamari. The dried black mushrooms had not been soaked sufficiently and were tough.
In addition, Ive tried from the regular menu (in English):
Hot and sour soup My first waitress had recommended this and I tried it on my return visit. The version here is thickened and very eggy. The strips of tofu were not the freshest, but the silken textured strands of pork, slivered wood ears, fresh lily buds, fermented brown beans, couple of prawns, bamboo shoots, and medium hot and slightly tart broth more than made up for it.
Egg drop soup This was on the house, and worth about that much. Frozen succotash (lima beans, carrots, peas, green beans, and corn) were suspended in a neutral-tasting broth with shreds of wood ears and beaten egg.
With three out of five dishes being more than satisfactory, this has turned out to be a pretty good find. It still surprises me that the kitchen uses ingredients like fresh lily buds and wood ears so liberally, as Ive been the only Chinese patron in the place the four times Ive eaten here.
Prices are a little high compared to San Francisco or San Jose pricing levels. Yet, the place has been busy each week night Ive been here and the clientele is mostly non-Asian. The atmosphere is pleasant and the servers have been eager to please. Its across the highway from Marine World USA and offers delivery service to hotels and motels near the park.
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