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.
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.
From the spare, industrial interior sparsely dotted with tables to rice purified with binchotan, or Japanese white charcoal ($2), it's clear this no typical Asian eatery. There is — of course! — KFC ($5), although here it is lightly fried, yielding spicy chicken more akin to buffalo wings than the aforementioned boneless chicken at Aria. Bento box-like "BAP sets" ($6-10) offer meat or veggies alongside rice and banchan or panchan (mini-dishes that often accompany Korean meals that could account for the name of these plates on the menu), which rotate daily. Spinach roots and French breakfast radish crowns are brined in mustard and nori, and sesame leaves are pickled in soy, white zucchini or green mango in vinegar. Kimchi comes in multiple forms, including versions made with bok choy and kale.
Robata specials are grilled on wood skewers. There's okra and snap peas and tender chicken "oyster" cuts. The best bite of all? Bacon mochi ($2.50). The mochi is sticky, subtly savory, and gummy, satisfying on its own merit — until you reach the bacon and accompanying mustard seeds. I'd eat this fantastic bite for breakfast, dessert — basically any way at all. For bigger appetites, there's sandwiches ($8) like a Tokyo po' boy laden with fried chicken, red cabbage slaw, house mayo, and pickles.
To drink there's a bracing, cool roasted corn tea ($1), chilled and nearly creamy with fresh corn flavor. Other drink options include Tang (yes, Tang!), house barrel-aged soju, and glasses from the neighbors, like Alameda's Rock Wall Wines and beer on tap from Oakland's Linden Street Brewery. FuseBOX is only open Wednesday through Friday, 11:30am—2:30pm, but promises that its dinner menu will soon be operational. As its hours expand, I've no doubt it will become even more crowded than its three-day-a-week lunches already are. There's no place like it.
2311A Magnolia, Oakl. (510) 444-3100, www.fuseboxoakland.com 
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