Lights Up West Oakland With Korean Small Plates
FuseBOX is not a place you bump into by accident. As you round the corner of West Grand and Magnolia, the view is a bit wild West: rough corrugated roofs, graffiti-enhanced fences, barbed wire coils and then, oddly, a life-sized carved wooden hippo. Welcome to wild West Oakland, home to artists, cabinet-makers, steel workers and a tiny new Korean restaurant that manages to be both deeply traditional and whimsically inventive.
The minimalism of FuseBOX’s décor is echoed in its array of small bites: two wooden skewers hold three perfectly grilled snap peas or a pair of “chicken thigh oysters.” Three glistening fava beans sidle up to a chunk of grilled corn on the cob, brushed with miso butter. The house-made tofu wears a rough coat of potato starch, but swims in a bowl of smooth dashi broth.
FuseBOX is aptly named for its palpable electric energy. To chef and owner Sunhui Chang, who was born in Korea but moved to Guam at age 7, the restaurant’s concept is fluid. “Korean is our starting point, but who knows what we’ll evolve into in a couple of years?” In his plethora of pickles, Chang champions the use of “vegetable offal” — the bits that others throw out. “A radish actually has four useable parts,” he says, “the leaves, stem, root and bulb. Korean food is very healthy; the green radish tips or pink spinach roots taste best and have the most nutrition. Guam is where I fell in love with pickles. It’s a pickling culture. Kids brought school lunches with jars of pickled green mango or papaya and we’d fall all over them.”
Chang pickles his veggies in mustard, garlic or vinegar brines and makes his own gochujang, the fiery Korean chili paste. And don’t even ask if he likes kimchi. “Like it? I bleed kimchi,” he (and his T-shirt) proclaim. A typical trio might include napa cabbage, bok choy bottoms and kale kimchi, “all made the old-school way.”
Sharing cooking duties is Chang’s “kitchen-soulmate” and sous chef, Sabur Franklin. The two met at West Oakland’s People’s Grocery. FuseBOX’s general manager is Chang’s wife, acclaimed theater director Ellen Sebastian Chang. “Restaurants are much more dramatic than theater,” she says, serving a tiny glass of aged soju. “There’s the unpredictability of what popular dish we might run out of, and when people are hungry, they want their food now!”
Chang’s changing menu always includes several incarnations of pork: as “naked” pork belly or in a sandwich with pickled white zucchini. A bacon-wrapped mochi puff is served with a smear of mustard. Its gooey middle makes the perfect sticky stuff to pick up crunchy pickled mustard seeds.
FuseBOX opened in May, serving lunches a few days a week to give Chang’s beloved West Oakland neighbors a local eating spot, but word of FuseBOX, spreading like an internet wildfire, has patrons driving in from points north and south. Future plans include expanded days and hours plus courtyard seating. “Imagine a tableside barbecue grill under the stars,” muses Chang, who already has a few stars shining down on him.
FuseBOX, 2311-A Magnolia St., (510) 444-3100, serves lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Wed.–Fri. but check the website, www.fuseboxoakland.com, for expanded days and hours.