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Best of Tacoma 2019: Cham Garden Korean BBQ

Writer's Pick: Best Asian Buffet

Pile the meat on the hibachis at Cham Garden Korean BBQ. Photo credit: Christian Carvajal

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Never in world history has there been a better time to be a hardcore foodie. Educated by thousands of hours of globe-spanning food TV and toting enough celebrity cookbooks to overfill a library, we race into cuisines that would've scared American diners away before the debut of Iron Chef America. Washingtonians are especially broadminded, so I've dined next to culturally literate grade-school kids in restaurants offering everything from Abyssinian injera to Ukrainian bubik. I must confess, though, I retain a disreputable food fondness from my adolescence. There are readers who'll cringe when I admit this, but I'm a lover of Asian buffets. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a guilty pleasure, though I do try to restrict myself to occasional visits in deference to a WW lifestyle.

My gateway drug was Chinese buffet, of course, expansive eateries deploying dozens of dishes for an orgy of culinary overkill. My personal favorite is Main Chinese in Lacey, but I can get behind Great Wall on Hosmer in south Tacoma. The latter boasts scrumptiously savory beef ribs and peanut butter katsu that made me go back for seconds. India's in Asia, too, so let's take a moment to praise the lunch buffets at Gateway to India and East India Grill. For a change of pace perfect for a leisurely date night, however, my recommendation is South Tacoma Way's Cham Garden Korean BBQ. It's an Asian buffet even those who roll their eyes at Americanized Chinese might enjoy -- provided they aren't vegetarian. Cham Garden's an unapologetic haven for carnivores who believe if an animal must die so we humans can eat, the meat should at least be fully appreciated.

Cham Garden Korean BBQ was founded by Hoon Yee and James Pak (Build a Burger) in 2007, then purchased by Jay and Kay Lim with no menu changes last year. It's a cozy place with seven or eight tables, so lone diners are prohibited. My wife and I arrived at 5:30 on a recent Friday night and were told there'd be a two-hour wait. That turned out not to be the case, so we were invited 40 minutes later to fill our plates with raw meats to grill on the hibachi between us -- and oh, what meat! My favorite was the spicy pork bulgogi, dripping with what I believe was gochujang. My wife's choice was the pork jowl, which looked like wide strips of bacon and tasted like bacon to the power of bacon. Our server told us "Cham" is Korean for "authentic." I can't guarantee that's true, but the tradition of Korean barbecue does go back thousands of years, interrupted in the Three Kingdoms period by the advent of vegetarian Buddhism.

In addition to half a dozen types of meat, Cham Garden offers a selection of banchan, meaning Korean appetizers and veggies like kimchi and Korean-style potato salad. I can also recommend Cham Garden's spicy glazed chicken. Those who fear chiles needn't worry; the heat of Korean gochu is present in several dishes but never overpowers their mingled, delicious flavors. For a kind of Asian street taco, make liberal use of the palm-sized radish wraps provided. After sodas, tips and all, our gut-busting dinner for two ran about $56. That's pricy for Asian, perhaps, but the lunch menu is cheaper and besides, Cham Garden is one place Tacoma diners can enjoy buffet fare with no shame in their game.

CHAM GARDEN KOREAN BBQ, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; noon-9 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday, 10518 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood, 253.584.2287

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