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A Different Kind of Koreatown

In Santa Clara’s sprawling strip malls, you’ll find cauldrons of chicken-ginseng soup, mountains of charcoal-grilled meat, and some seriously swanky supermarkets. In short, it’s the best Korean food in the Bay.

SLIDESHOW

Grilled meats and side dishes at Han Sung BBQ.

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A fishmonger at Hankook Supermarket.

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A display of chili and soybean pastes at Hankook Supermarket.

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Jjajangmyeon and fried dumplings at Hong Kong Banjum Paik’s Noodle.

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Spicy seafood noodle soup at Han Sung BBQ.

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The prepared foods section at Hankook.

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Chef Yong Ja Lee at BN Chicken.

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The signature samgyetang at BN Chicken.

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Chi Oh’s sweet potato stand.

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When Noah Cho first thought about relocating from SoCal to the Bay Area a little over 10 years ago, the biggest deterrent didn’t have anything to do with weather or beaches or the cost of living. The Orange County native just didn’t want to give up easy access to the best Korean food in the country, especially since the Korean restaurants in San Francisco and the East Bay had left him unimpressed. Cho, who writes about Korean food for the web magazine Catapult, says that what helped seal the deal was his now-wife, a South Bay native, introducing him to a string of Korean strip malls in Santa Clara, on and around the western end of El Camino Real, which form a kind of loose-knit Koreatown—or “Korea-not-quite-town,” as Cho puts it. It was the only part of Northern California in which he could find Korean restaurants—dozens of them within a couple of square miles, in fact—of the caliber and variety that Angelenos take for granted.

In many ways, Santa Clara bucks the conventions of a typical immigrant enclave. For starters, not that many Korean people actually live there. In Santa Clara proper, the Korean population hovers at around 3 percent—a figure at odds with the dense concentration of shopping plazas bustling with Korean-owned fried chicken joints, soju pubs, and skincare emporiums. Ken Kim, founder of the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce of Silicon Valley, explains that although the Bay Area’s first major wave of Korean immigrants, in the 1970s, couldn’t afford to buy homes in Santa Clara, they could open shops, because the commercial rents on that stretch of El Camino Real were some of the lowest in the area. The first tiny Korean grocery store opened in 1971, followed, in the way that immigrant entrepreneurs tend to stick together, by a slow trickle of other Korean businesses. By the ’90s, it had become a veritable flood.

“It’s definitely the best in the Bay Area,” Cho says of Santa Clara’s wealth of Korean establishments. Really, the city is the only place in Northern California where you’ll find so many Korean restaurants devoted to a single dish or ingredient (say, Korean blood sausages), a whole economy of closet-size takeout operations hawking the boxed lunches known as dosirak, and not one, not two, but three gigantic Korean supermarkets. Spend a day exploring the city’s strip mall splendors, and you’ll see why the Korean food there is the food that Korean Americans themselves deem best.

 

The Hangover Killer
Start the day off at Kunjip, a cozy home-style restaurant that opens at 9 a.m. despite not having a dedicated breakfast menu. That’s in part because a traditional breakfast in South Korea looks pretty much like any other meal: rice, soup, meat, and little vegetable side dishes. Kunjip’s specialty is sulungtang, a wholesome ox-bone soup that Koreans prize for its hangover-curing properties—it is, as Cho puts it, the answer to the eternal question “I got ripped in Seoul last night. What am I going to do?” The soup comes loaded with slices of brisket and slippery sweet-potato noodles, but the star attraction is the rich, soothing, milky-white broth, which arrives unseasoned for you to doctor up yourself with salt, chopped scallions, and spicy red-pepper paste. Cho notes that Kunjip is precisely the kind of narrowly focused Korean restaurant that you’ll hardly ever find in San Francisco or Oakland. Instead of offering a greatest-hits menu of 100 different dishes, Kunjip serves 11 items, mostly soups or stews. The maeun galbi jjim, a steaming-hot cauldron of spicy-sweet beef short ribs that you cut up at the table with a pair of scissors, might not be a traditional breakfast dish. But there aren’t many better ways to start off a day. 1066 Kiely Blvd.

Beyond Paris Baguette
If, however, you prefer to stay within the strictures of conventional Western notions of breakfast fare, you needn’t leave the vicinity: Santa Clara has no shortage of Korean-owned bakeries and coffee shops. Naturally, there’s a branch of Paris Baguette, South Korea’s most famous export in the baked goods realm, with its selection of dainty, Asian-ified French pastries. But Santa Clara offers pastry eaters the opportunity to go a little bit more Korean. At Jin’s Bakery & Coffee, for instance, you can order a sweet potato latte and a chewy tapioca-and-red-bean pancake and join the elderly Korean gentlemen who hang out on the café’s sunny wraparound porch. And if you want to delve into the world of traditional Korean rice cakes, there’s Ewha Dang Rice Bakery, a tiny shop (open only on weekday mornings and afternoons) whose selection of elegant, barely sweet treats includes steamed rice cakes, layered with pumpkin or assorted nuts and cut into thick slices, and mochi-like rice cakes filled with red bean paste. Jin’s Bakery & Coffee 2792 El Camino Real; EWHA Dang Rice Bakery 1076 Kiely Blvd.

Fast Food That’s Actually Good
At lunchtime, one of the busiest restaurants in Santa Clara’s Korean enclave is Hong Kong Banjum Paik’s Noodle, a chain affiliated with the South Korean celebrity chef Baek Jong-won, whom store manager Haksoo Joo describes as Korea’s version of Gordon Ramsay—in terms of fame and televised ubiquity, if not the yelling. The focus here is Korean-Chinese comfort food, served up for cheap and blindingly quick. Yes, it’s fast food, but there’s brisk table service, and the noodles are made from scratch in-house. A bowl of the jjajangmyeon, with its thick, chewy noodles, tender pork lardons, and gently salty-sweet black bean sauce, is the kind of quick, satisfying lunch-break meal that any noodle lover would be lucky to eat multiple times a week. 1520 Kiely Blvd.

The Greatest Chicken Soup
Santa Clara is also home to BN Chicken, the only Bay Area restaurant I’m aware of that specializes in the bubbling-hot chicken-ginseng soup known as samgyetang, which South Koreans like to eat on the hottest days of the year because the roots and herbs in the soup help replenish the body’s nutrients. “We eat very hot chicken in the summer,” owner Judy Kim explains. The herbal soup, which has a delicate sweetness, is just as good on cold days, though, or days when you’re feeling under the weather. Inside a stone bowl sits a whole Cornish hen, as tender as you can imagine, stuffed with garlic, herbs, and glutinous rice. You can rip off chunks of meat and dip them in salt, but the best way to eat the dish, Kim says, is to put a little bit of everything—soup, rice, chicken—in a bowl and mix it together, like the world’s most comforting porridge. 2725 El Camino Real, Ste 102

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
A day in Santa Clara offers ample proof that Korean food isn’t just barbecue, but if you’re going to have Korean barbecue, you should still make the trip to Santa Clara—specifically to Han Sung BBQ, the only spot in the city that does charcoal grilling, imbuing the meat, and your clothing, with a smokiness for which there just isn’t any substitute. It’s a family operation through and through, says owner Judy Hwang—her mother is the main chef, and her husband handles all the meat. Han Sung offers simple pleasures: The galbi, or beef short ribs, is some of the most gorgeously marbled meat you’ll ever see. Get it unmarinated, cook it quickly over the hot flame, and dip it into a mix of sesame oil and salt. There’s nothing better. 2644 El Camino Real

Supermarket Sweep
No trip to Santa Clara’s ad hoc Koreatown would be complete without stocking up on supplies for home—especially given that the area has three Korean mega grocery stores: Hankook Supermarket, Galleria Market, and Super Kyo-Po Plaza. The swankiest of these is Hankook Supermarket (actually just over the border in Sunnyvale), which, aisle for flawlessly gleaming aisle, is in the conversation for the very best supermarket in the Bay Area. The hot-food and banchan bars alone are worth the trip, with their huge trays overloaded with pepper-tinged baby octopus, tiny fried fish, and maybe a dozen varieties of kimchi. Bring a cooler with you: The seafood section is immaculate, and the meat section is a paradise for aficionados of well-marbled beef. Naturally, there’s an entire aisle devoted to instant noodles, of which South Korea is one of the world’s foremost innovators. Santa Clara’s other Korean markets have their own charms. In front of Galleria Market, for instance, you’ll find one of the city’s quaintest food vendors: a little makeshift sweet potato stand that Chi Oh has run for the past six years. Here you can buy the root veggies cooked in an old-fashioned street-style roaster and served in a paper bag—the kind of winter’s-day treat that old-timers from South Korea remember eating when they were kids. You have to blow on the potatoes before you bite into them, and I swear they might be the sweetest you’ll ever eat—a taste of nostalgia for some and, for the rest, a rare taste of South Korea right here in the Bay Area. Hankook Supermarket 1092 E. El Cmino Real, Sunnyvale; Galleria Market 3531 El Camino Real

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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