Kimchee, Tang, porno posters, and awesome flavors -- we're happy to ride the wave of new Korean spots
APPETITE The nation's on a kimchi kick. Truth be told, California has long been home to some of the country's densest Asian populations, so here in the Bay Korean cuisine is at a crossroads — is it a staple? Exotic novelty? With the help of a few new openings, the answer may be shifting. Despite a smattering of Korean BBQ joints in SF and a concentrated Korean population in Oakland, it hasn't been until the last few years that I've witnessed local Korean eateries offering much beyond barbecue.
But now, thanks to the forward-thinking fusion of Namu Gaji and home-cooked joys of To Hyang, Nan, Manna, and Aato, the Bay is getting a crack at more diverse Korean offerings. In Oakland, good times can be had at the "porno bar," a.k.a. Dan Sung Sa (2775 Telegraph, Oakl. (510) 663-5927), so-called due to the Korean film posters lining its walls, though there's actually nothing explicit to be seen. Its fried chicken, Korean beers, and comfortably dive-y atmosphere evoke an under-the-radar speakeasy vibe, reminiscent of long-timer Toyose (3814 Noriega, SF. (415) 731-0232), tucked away in a similarly relaxed spot in an Outer Sunset garage.
Here's two stand-outs in a wave of openings that exemplify the gourmet fun of casual Korean snacking, both an ideal locales for cheap beers with good friends.
ARIA KOREAN AMERICAN SNACK BAR
The Kim family has taken over what was once the Old Chelsea Fish and Chips space in the Tenderloin. Aria Korean American Snack Bar is a closet-sized eatery — still appropriately dingy for its bustling block, but the Kims have infused it with fresh life, greeting visitors with a smile and a record player stocked with Tom Jones and Sinatra LPs. Mom and Pop Kim run the place, though their son and his girlfriend have come up from LA to help them get going.
The family has a hit on its hands with the Korean fried chicken (nine pieces for $6.99-7.99, 16 pieces for $12.99-13.99). It feels like everyone is doing KFC these days, but these boneless, overgrown nuggets are special: crispy-tender and fried in cottonseed oil, with zero trans fat. Dip them into earthy-sweet spicy sauce and an addiction will be born. Mama's acidic sweet-and-sour radishes are just the right accompaniment to clean the palate and perk up the taste buds.
There's also an array of fried snacks from mixed veggies (carrots, sweet potato, zucchini, onion) to seaweed rolls packed with potato and glass noodles (eight pieces for $5.99). Hot and spicy rice cakes ($5.99) are another of mom's recipes. They arrive blessedly chewy, sitting in — what else? — a spicy red sauce. The Kim family good cheer and authentic fried bites make this the kind of snack bar every neighborhood should be so lucky to have.
932 Larkin, SF. (415) 292-6914
Tucked away in a sunny courtyard off desolate West Oakland streets sits FuseBOX, a truly exciting haven for Asian fusion. Those looking to categorize its food could satisfy themselves by calling it Korean food served Japanese izakaya style, but the FuseBOX mashup goes above and beyond this simplification.
In the three months it's been open, this cash-only respite created by Sunhui and Ellen Sebastian Chang offers daily robata specials ($1–$3). Granted, these are merely bites, but there's real joy in sampling this range of grilled vegetables and meat.