Zazang Korean Noodle

A nice change from Korean BBQ, featuring homemade noodles and spicy black bean paste
Photo by Rory McNamara

The words "Korean" and "barbecue" might never be woven into an eternal golden braid to compare with Gödel, Escher, and Bach, but they are definitely interwoven, perhaps even fused. When you say you want Korean food, you almost certainly will be understood to mean the kind served at the barbecue joints that line Geary Boulevard in the blocks just east of Park Presidio. These meals begin with a bounty of small dishes — pickled vegetables, bean sprouts, and so forth — before culminating in some kind of meat course in which you do your own grilling on the hibachi in the middle of your table.

There's nothing wrong with this drill, but if you're looking for something different yet still want Korean — and don't want to go upmarket at Namu — what do you do? Why, you go to Za Zang Korean Noodle, of course, which, despite a name that sounds like one of the sounds written out on the old Batman television series when the bad guys were getting it (like biff! bam! boom! and pow!), is a nifty Korean noodle house on an almost invisible stretch of Geary between Divisadero and the Masonic underpass.

Yellow (almost gold!) is a theme here. The restaurant inside is largely done in tones of this cheerful color, and the pickled radishes on their complimentary plate are as pure an example of the hue as I've seen outside a box of Crayola crayons. They are like slices of the summer sun as depicted in a grade-school child's drawing. They're also mild — though tasty — and in this sense are something of a rarity on a menu otherwise laden with spice-charged possibilities. Perhaps their lone companion in mild-manneredness is the platter of boiled potstickers ($7.55 for a dozen); the cloud-shaped flour pouches have a softness I associate with shumai or other dim sum and are filled with gingery minced pork and chopped scallions. (You can also get them deep-fried, which brings a vegetarian option and a choice of headcounts, either four or eight.)

The noodle courses are, first, big. Just immense, easily enough for two people even if they're hungry. The noodles themselves are housemade and resemble fresh spaghetti. They turn up in both the soupy dishes (zam pong, udon) and the un-soupy ones. In the second category, I found the spicy gan za zang ($8.95) to be unusually satisfying: a hemispherical bowl the size of a halved canteloupe, filled with noodles and slivered scallions, and a second bowl, smaller and shallower, filled with diced beef and vegetable (mostly eggplant, I guessed) in a thick black-bean, or za zang, sauce. (Hence the restaurant's name.) Our server's somewhat garbled advice, as I understood it, was to spoon the beef mixture gradually over the noodles. I did so and was happy, although I also took the occasional spoonful of the beef sauce neat and was just as happy with its dark, slightly fruity heat.

Black-bean paste figures in many of the non-soups, with the main variable being protein: seafood and pork are also offered, there is a flesh-free version, and the beef can be had in non-spicy guise. The wonderful noodles, meanwhile, figure in soups and non-soups alike. And vegetarians will note that all the soups are made with beef broth. This is bad for vegetarianism but good for flavor.

You are unlikely ever to find a more flavorful soup than zam pong ($7.95), which is like a bouillabaisse, only much, much livelier. The beef broth is charged with garlic and red chilis and is absolutely swimming with calamari tentacles, clams, shrimp (still dressed in their shells, making them tastier but a drag to eat), and slivers of onions and green bell peppers. Rice instead of noodles? That's zam pong bap ($8.95).

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