As a Korean-American foodie who resides in West Oakland, I’m lucky that there’s a slew of fine eateries not too far from our home all along Telegraph Avenue in Temescal. There’s excellent Korean food elsewhere in the Bay Area, but if you feel like working your way down “Kimchi Row” that extends south to Koreatown, check out the following list. Korean food is known for its fiery spices, diversity of dishes and plentiful portions — so it’s well-suited for communal eating, especially if you have a penchant for cuisine with a spicy kick. And let us know your favorites in the comments.
PyeongChang Tofu House
4701 Telegraph Avenue (btwn. 47th & 48th Streets) Oakland [map]
Ph: (510) 658-9040
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11:30AM-2:30PM; 5PM-10PM; Sun. 12PM-9PM
If you’re craving a spicy, bubbling tofu stew that’s served piping hot, get your fix at PyeongChang Tofu House. Sit down at one of the carved wooden tables and choose from a wide array of options, including one for vegetarians. You can’t go wrong with their house specialty, the original sundubu jiigae, which is brimming with your choice of beef and pork and soft tofu ($10.99). (You can adjust the spiciness to taste as well.) Every entree is accompanied with free banchan, or a selection of side dishes. The items vary depending on the day, but you’ll always find at least one iteration of the Korean national dish of fermented cabbage, or kimchi. There’s plenty of other traditional items on the menu, including bulgogi, which literally translates to “fire meat” ($19.99). The marinated beef will arrive on a sizzling platter, ready to eat with the steamed white rice cooked to perfection in a stone bowl. If you’d like to eat the crunchy rice crust at the bottom of the bowl, you can scrape it out and eat it plain, or your server can add water for a simple but delicious ad hoc soup.
This homey spot with leather booths and illuminated photographs of mouth-watering Korean dishes on the walls is a great go-to spot for jeongol, or casseroles, that will simmer away right on your table on a portable hot plate. Don’t be surprised if the owner, a kindly ajumma, personally cooks it for you and fusses over your meal like an attentive Korean auntie. There’s a range of meaty versions, and one vegetarian-ish option ($29.95) filled with soft tofu, vegetables and thick udon noodles (the broth is chicken-based; they may be able to accommodate you if you ask for a non-meat stock). Although you’ll be spoiled by the numerous bowls of complimentary banchan that’ll fill your table, try one of the appetizers, too. Pa jeon, or a large, fried flour scallion pancake that you dip in soy sauce ($13.95) is perfect for sharing with a group. A spicy, shredded beef and sweet potato noodle soup, yukgaejang, will clear your sinuses ($10.95.) Also recommended are their barbecue dishes, such as kalbi, or broiled, marinated short ribs ($20.95) and spicy grilled pork, or daeji bulgogi ($17.95). And if you fall in love with their housemade kimchi, you can buy some to take with you — just ask your server. They have limited parking available behind the restaurant as well.
While the somewhat shabby, windowless brick building on the corner of Telegraph and MacArthur doesn’t look too inviting on the outside, don’t be fooled by its plain exterior. Seoul Gomtang lives up to its name and offers a delectable variety of soups and other dishes, including its namesake. Gom tang is a rich, milky white broth made by gently simmering meat and bones for hours. While the restaurant seems to cater to a primarily Korean clientele, the servers speak English and the menus are bilingual — though look for the one with images if you’re having trouble deciphering what to order. Gori gom tang ($15.99) is described as a “thick broth of throughly cooked ox tail” (for images, visit their listing on Yelp as I neglected to take a photo.) Add scallions and sea salt (canisters of both will already be on your table) to flavor the simple soup filled with chunks of oxtail on the bone. For a cool soup on a hot day, Mul naengmyeon ($9.95) is a fine choice. Described as “cold noodle with beef” on the menu, buckwheat noodles swim in a tangy broth garnished with boiled egg, pickled cucumbers and radish as well as shredded beef. Use the mustard and vinegar condiments if you’d like to spice up your soup, and if you find the noodles too long and unwieldy, don’t hesitate to use the scissors your server gives to you beforehand. While the banchan consists of just three kinds of kimchi — cucumber, cabbage and radish — they’re all you need to accompany your meal and refills are available upon request. Two tasty side dishes are the plump jin mandoo ($12.99), or steamed dumplings stuffed with pork and tofu, and hae mool pajun ($14.95), an oversized fried pancake packed with peppers, green onions, oysters and squid. Limited parking is available behind the restaurant.
If you’re seeking a reasonably-priced, DIY Korean BBQ experience, Gogi Time, which translates to “Meat Time,” is the place to go if you want to grill your own seafood and meat tableside. For $24.95 per person (with a 2 person minimum), you can choose from several sections to assemble your own all-you-can eat meal: appetizers; stews; items for the grill; wraps; condiments; rice. Bulgogi, pork belly and spicy pork are excellent options, as well as baby octopus. Pace yourself and cook just a few slices at a time over the hot wood coals, or you may find your meat will be done before you’re ready to dig in. Top with garlic, chilies and doenjang, or a mild fermented soybean paste, then wrap it all in lettuce to enjoy as a mini-Korean burrito (or ssam). Ask for more servings if you’ve still got room, if you’re not filled up on side dishes like the soft tofu stew (sundubu jigae) and banchan. Soon you’ll be rolling out the door, perfumed in BBQ smoke, once you finish your lavish feast.
While the sign out front declares that Chef Yu / Yuyu Za Zang is a Chinese restaurant, it actually specializes in Korean-style Chinese food. Although it does have a separate menu with Kung Pao Chicken, Mongolian Beef and other typical Chinese dishes, go there for their homemade noodle dishes. The standout is the za zang myun; for $5.45, you’ll get a heaping bowl of wheat flour noodles topped with a salty, sautéed black soybean sauce with pork, onions and other vegetables. It’s traditionally served with bright yellow pickled daikon radish and diced raw onions for dipping into a small dish of plain black soybean sauce. You can also get the same za zang sauce over rice with an omelet for $6.95, and it comes with a small spicy bowl of complimentary jam pong soup. For a hotter version of sweet-and-sour chicken, gan poong ki is filled with tender bites of boneless fried chicken in a sugary-spicy glaze. Also highly recommended are the pork and vegetable fried dumplings ($6.25.) While a special, pricier menu of additional Korean-Chinese dishes is only noted on a sign handwritten in Korean on the wall — including pal bo chae (a stir-fried seafood & vegetable medley, $25) and hae sam tang (braised sea cucumber dish, $35) — ask your server about those dishes if you’re curious.