BELLEVILLE — Song Peacock always intended to open a restaurant. She comes by the inclination naturally.
"My parents own a family restaurant," the native of Korea said last week.
A few thousand miles and a couple decades had to go by first, but Song opened Korean Garden Grill in December in Belleville, next to the Family Sportsplex on Illinois 177/Mascoutah Avenue.
"We thought this would be a good location because it's close to the base and the lunch crowd can come here," said her husband, Joel, who retired from the Air Force in 2006 and now holds a civilian job at Scott Air Force Base. They met while he was stationed in Korea and have been married 21 years. Their daughter Heather, 17, helps out at the restaurant, too.
Joel said it's typical for Air Force personnel to do a tour in Korea. Many return home with a taste for the food; the authentic variety not easily found in the metro-east. So, Song offers kimchi, bulgogi and chap chay, along with a variety of other classic Korean and Asian dishes.
"I stopped in to see if they were open and they were very gracious to me because it was an hour before the dinnertime and they fed me anyway," said Fred Leighton, 58, of Shiloh. The retired Air Force master sergeant developed an appreciation for bulgogi and other traditional food while in Korea in the 1970s.
"It's meat that's been marinated in spices and stuff, and I love it. They did a great job. Very good."
Song called it "the No. 1 thing people who go to Korean get."
Traditionally made with sliced beef, the restaurant also offers dak bulgogi (marinated chicken) and mehwuh dak bulgogi (spicy marinated chicken). Prices are $9.99 and $10.99 (for the beef), which include rice and a side dish. Lunch portions are $6.99 and $7.99. Think exotic combinations and you can eat bulgogi tacos, too; a pair of flour tortillas stuffed with meat, vegetables and a house sauce for the same prices.
The interior of the small restaurant has been transformed with gray and burgundy paint, tables and chairs and a long counter.
Vegetarians will find plenty from which to choose, especially with kimchi on the menu. It is a classic Korean side dish, though many Americans know it only as fermented shredded cabbage. Song says there are many varieties of kimchi, including ones made with shredded vegetables, such as cucumbers and radishes. It's also used to make soup. It's a matter of pride to Song that she makes all her kimchi from scratch, which involves a great deal of work and time, Joel said.
"Koreans eat kimchi every day. It's pretty healthy," he said.
Song smiled. "It's a life necessity."
You'll find several categories on the menu, from appetizers, rice and noodles to seafood and soup.
Try bibimbap, which is rice topped with vegetables, egg and a spicy Korean paste for $8.99.
"It's healthy and tasty," says Song.
Joel said his favorite is chap chay, clear noodles stir-fried with beef and vegetables ($8.99).
Like Asian food, the spiciness of Korean dishes can be adjusted. Song's made-from-scratch menu includes a few items Americans not familiar with the food will find exotic, such as ojinguh bokem, which is squid stir-fried in a spicy sauce ($10.99). The Korean Garden Grill also serves nakji bokem, or octopus stir-fried in a spicy sauce ($12.99). Both come with rice and side dishes.
Want to learn more? That's just what Song and Joel are hoping for: Customers who come in asking questions and are open to suggestions as to what to try.
And for those looking for the familiar, Song also has included Asian dishes, such as pad thai, crab rangoon and lo mein.
Joel says he's very proud of his wife. "She always had a passion for food."
Plus, he pointed out, when St. Clair County did its inspection, the restaurant got a perfect score of 100.
Korean Garden Grill
2346 Mascoutah Ave., Belleville
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and 4 to 9 p.m. for dinner, Mondays through Saturdays. Closed Sundays.
Offers dine-in and carryout
Information: 618-825-0052; see a complete menu at koreangardengrill.com.