Oakland Seoul Food
Explore Koreatown Today
Korean food’s day is coming. It doesn’t have the brand-name recognition that Chinese, Japanese or even Thai cuisines do, but I think it’s only a matter of time until the hearty, spicy and fresh flavors of Korea go mainstream and win a wider following.
Korean food is easy to like. It’s a humble cuisine, like many of the world’s best culinary traditions, based on peasant-priced ingredients that are transformed into deliciousness through labor-intensive preparation and slow cooking. In spite of its big, bold flavors, Korean food is quite light. Garlic and chiles provide key flavors as does the red miso-chile paste that coats many grilled meats and vegetables. Kimchi, fermented cabbage spiked with garlic-laden chile paste, is the soul of Korean food. Because South Korea has short, intensely hot summers and long, harsh winters, preserving food to last through the cold months is crucial, and kimchi is a staple.
Outside of Los Angeles and Orange County, Oakland is one of the best places in the state to get a taste of this under-appreciated cuisine because of the quality, quantity and diversity of Korean restaurants in a relatively small area. It’s not as dense or immediately recognizable as Chinatown, but the city’s thriving Korean district stretches for about 20 blocks along Telegraph Avenue, from downtown up toward Berkeley.
To the extent that Americans are familiar with Korean food, it’s usually Korean barbecue. There are some good examples of these restaurants on Telegraph, such as Koryo, but I want to introduce you to three restaurants that serve lesser-known but equally delicious Korean cuisine.
If the wait for a table at Pizzaiolo is too long and you’re up for something a little more adventurous than pizza and pasta, cross the street to Pyung Chang Soft Tofu House. The restaurant is popular, but you’re not likely to have to queue up to get in. Inside, the spare but inviting dining room is filled with tables and benches made from big slabs of wood, and they give the place a friendly glow. The restaurant specializes in soon tofu, a bubbling crock of soft tofu stew that simmers in an assertive but soothing red broth loaded with vegetables, beef, seafood or all of the above. If you thought tofu was just for mild-mannered vegetarians, you’re wrong. This is tofu with attitude.
The “original soon tofu” ($8.99) arrives bubbling in a little black cauldron with tender slices of beef, green onions, bean sprouts and other vegetables. The broth is just this side of spicy. On a cold night, there are few dishes as warming and satisfying as this. You won’t miss the meat in the “vegetarian soon tofu” ($8.99). It’s just as big and hearty as the meaty versions. Other variations include squid and mushrooms, mixed seafood and pork. In addition to the soon tofu, there are also a number of stir-fried, grilled and casserole dishes—like the pork ribs and potato stew—worth trying.
The stews come with an impressive array of banchan, tiny side dishes of pickled vegetables, a crumbled-tofu-and-parsley salad, fish cakes and plenty of kimchi.
Given all this food, you’re not likely to have room for much else, but if you’re out with a group, consider the excellent vegetable pancakes ($4.99). Made with mung bean paste that tastes a lot like cornmeal to me, the crisp patties go great with a cold Korean beer.
Located at Telegraph and MacArthur, Seoul Gom Tang is beloved by Bay Area Koreans for its soup. The specialty of the house here is gom tang, beef and noodle soups made with brisket, oxtail or ox knee. The broth is thin and milky and actually rather bland, but by doctoring it up with the pickled radish, kimchi, cucumber, green onion, sea salt and chile paste set out before you, it’s transformed into a bowl of wonderful, soul-satisfying soup. For something with more vegetables and less beef, try hae sang guk ($8.95), a hot, sputtering pot of beef shank and bok choy in a dark red broth.
If you were limited to one stop in Oakland’s Koreatown it would have to be Sahn Maru, a bright, spotlessly clean place whose name means “top of the mountain.” While the big menu can be intimidating, the servers are unfailingly gracious and helpful. As my toddler son struggled with a pair of chopsticks, our waitress bound one end of them together with a rubber band to make it easier for him. It worked.
Sahn Maru is probably best known for its black goat stew ($16.95), a fantastic dish made with tender chunks of mild goat and sesame leaves in a smoldering, almost creamy mustard-and-bean-paste broth that’s served with vinegary black-sesame-paste dipping sauce. It’s delicious and unlike anything I’ve had. For something a little tamer but no less delicious, don’t miss the dark gui ($17.95). Made with tender chunks of spicy, slightly sweet grilled chicken breast and sautéed vegetables, it will make a Korean-food convert of anyone. The crisp, pan-fried dumplings ($10.95) are great, too.
Meals end with a delicious (and complimentary) cold beverage made with sugar, ginger, cinnamon, dates and pine nuts. It’s supposed to promote digestion and leaves you feeling satisfied and well taken care of.
Until a Korean chef debuts on the Food Network and introduces the cuisine to the masses, take the time to explore Oakland’s Koreatown. You’ll be ahead of the game when Korean food finally catches on and will eat really well in the meantime.
—By Stett Holbrook
—Photography by Lori Eanes
—Photography by Lori Eanes
PYUNG CHANG SOFT TOFU HOUSE. Korean. Serves lunch and dinner daily 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. 4701 Telegraph Ave., (510) 658-9040. CC$
SEOUL GOM TANG. Korean. Serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily 9 a.m.–11 p.m. 4315 Telegraph Ave., (510) 597-9989. CC$
SAHN MARU. Korean. Serves lunch and dinner daily except Tuesday 11 a.m.–11 p.m. 4315 Telegraph Ave., (510) 653-3366. CC$$