The Bay Area’s Korean food scene is better than ever. These 6 dishes are worth seeking out

Versie Dortch

At Ilcha, a new Korean restaurant in the Marina neighborhood, I found myself thinking about growth as I got knuckle-deep in a soy sauce-cured shrimp, digging the jelly-like flesh from its chitinous shell before dragging it through a raw egg yolk. As an adult, I’ve grown to love raw shrimp in all of its guises, sure, but I was also cheesing out over the fact that Ilcha is just one of several local spots where deep-cut specialties like this could be found.

The Bay Area has seen a new spate of Korean restaurants recently, with some hoping to introduce a modern touch to the scene and others leaning hard into hyper-specific niches. After an early pandemic chill on restaurant openings in general, the newest roster of Korean restaurants has already made an unforgettable impact on the scene.

Standing on the shoulders of classic restaurants that have laid a baseline of Korean cuisine in the Bay Area, these newcomers have launched with more ambitious menus, with the hope that Korean and non-Korean diners alike are ready for something new. There are the hotteok served at brewery pop-up Sammy’s, where proprietor Sammy Pak seals corn and cheese in dough with a shallow fry on a flattop grill, and the delightfully unbuttoned kimchi pozole served at San Francisco’s San Ho Won. The road to Korean food paradise is paved with good eats like these.

The most exciting moves have been in San Francisco and Oakland, fueled in part by established restaurateurs opening their second or third acts. That includes San Ho Won, a sister restaurant to the Michelin-starred Benu; Bansang, an upscale answer to galbi king Daeho; and Hotline, an offshoot from boutique grocery store Queens.

I’ve tried them all in the past few months to see if I could get a coherent sense of things — was this a movement? But I came away with nothing. That’s because each of them is so different from the others. And in a way, that’s telling, too: that we have enough space in the food scene here now to welcome a diversity of approaches to Korean food. What follows is a log of those visits, centered on the dishes that really stood out.

Acorn noodles are a highlight at Joodooboo in Oakland.

Acorn noodles are a highlight at Joodooboo in Oakland.

Soleil Ho / The Chronicle

Acorn noodles | 도토리국수

Joodooboo opened in January with an endearing concept: It’s a deli focused on making fresh tofu and seasonal banchan, complete with banchan subscriptions for those who can’t live without something fermented in the fridge. It recently introduced dine-in service with a succinct menu of dishes — so succinct, there are usually just two.

If you’re lucky and get there before sell-out, one of those options will be a bowl of slippery acorn flour noodles ($14.50) mixed with julienned raw vegetables and a peppery sauce, with dates sweetening the whole deal. Seasonal greens might include young lettuces, foraged Claytonia perfoliata leaves the shape of satellite dishes, or angular onion flowers. If you time it right, you’ll be able to bulk up the bowl with add-ons like Monterey Bay squid jeot ($3) turned wispy, like you’re eating the ghost of a squid, after a long salt brine.

Joodooboo. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Takeout, and indoor and outdoor seating. Street parking. Wheelchair accessible. 4201 Market St., Oakland. 501-500-1001 or

Double-cut galbi is a specialty at San Ho Won in San Francisco.

Double-cut galbi is a specialty at San Ho Won in San Francisco.

Courtesy Eric Wolfinger

Double-cut galbi | “더블컷” 갈비

OK, galbi isn’t a “deep cut,” but the ones at San Ho Won are really special. Already feeling like a titan of Bay Area Korean food, San Ho Won is wholly invested in making the best possible iterations of Korean barbecue classics. Everything, from the napa cabbage kimchi to the intense and wobbly steamed egg, feels perfectly dialed-in: the picture of finesse.

Barbecue dishes are prepared in the kitchen, cooked over the restaurant’s proprietary solid lychee wood charcoal, which imparts very little odor onto the finished product. The house double-cut galbi ($46 for 8 ounces), glistening with rendered beef fat and cut into thick squares, has the shine of polished stone. The exterior is charred with a deliriously pleasing layer of caramelized sugar; the interior has a dreamy tenderness. Grab it with the add-ons of fresh greens ($8) for wrapping and scallion salad ($4) to soften the meat’s richness.

San Ho Won. 5-9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Indoor seating. Street parking and bicycle racks. Wheelchair accessible. 2170 Bryant St., San Francisco. 415-868-4479 or

Ganjang saewoo, soy-cured shrimp served with egg yolk rice, at Ilcha in San Francisco.

Ganjang saewoo, soy-cured shrimp served with egg yolk rice, at Ilcha in San Francisco.

Soleil Ho/The Chronicle

Soy sauce-cured shrimp | 간장새우

On this particular stretch of Lombard Street, on the southern edge of the Marina district, there’s not much to eat. But a new Korean gastropub, opened in April, feels like a good fit for the clubby neighborhood. Opened by two friends, with one from the family that owns the Lucky Pig in the Tenderloin, Ilcha features a full menu of fried chicken, loaded tater tots and stews to go with a serious menu of premium soju bottles and other fermented rice liquors.

The shrimp at Ilcha channels the same blissful feeling as sucking down aguachile in a Mexican beachside restaurant, though with deeper flavor notes that call for harder libations than Corona. Seasoned with soy sauce and plenty of garlic, the shrimp are creamy and slimy in the best way, and an accompaniment of seaweed-seasoned rice, topped with a raw egg yolk, is a complementary partner to that texture. You’ll get gloves to handle the peeling so don’t worry about the manicure. In the United States, it’s rare to find a casual, non-sushi restaurant brave enough to serve semi-raw shrimp. Ilcha really is something special.

Ilcha. 5:30-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Indoor seating. Nearby parking garage. Wheelchair accessible. 2151 Lombard St., San Francisco. 415-613-9288 or

Steamed egg with caviar at Bansang in San Francisco.

Steamed egg with caviar at Bansang in San Francisco.

Soleil Ho / The Chronicle

Steamed egg | 계란찜

Like at San Ho Won, Bansang serves Korean food cooked by fine-dining veterans. Opened in April in the former Izakaya Kou, this partnership between the Daeho restaurant group and chefs Ethan Min and Jin Lim maintains a high level of thoughtfulness but keeps the pricing relatively accessible. Entrees range from $16-$32, for instance. Min and Lim get funky with their menu, refreshing the Korean canon with culinary shout-outs that can seem irreverent at times.

A steamed egg dish ($19) is more custard-like than fluffy, served in a small ceramic bowl. A jalapeño sauce the color of peat moss, along with a crunchy crown of fried potato starch, is slightly confounding, like the prelude to a riddle. Is it chips? Is it dip? Taken with the saline slick of caviar, of which there is a generous and sculptural dollop, the parts coalesce into a whole that, somehow, makes sense. Min and Lim take a classic Korean comfort food, mash it up with another comfort food (chips!), and actually use caviar in a way that makes great use of its salty, umami-enhancing properties.

Bansang. 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Indoor seating. Street parking. Wheelchair accessible. 1560 Fillmore St., San Francisco. 415-697-5879 or

A plate of sweet and savory hotteok from Sammy’s.

A plate of sweet and savory hotteok from Sammy’s.

Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

Hotteok | 호떡

A pop-up that appears at breweries around Oakland, Sammy’s purports to be the Bay Area’s first pop-up shop to specialize in this popular Korean Chinese street food. Founder Sammy Pak plops balls of fresh dough onto a flat-top grill, pressing them into golden-crisp discs with a special metal weight. Like any good bao, the sweet rice flour dough is chewy, tender and satisfying to rip with your teeth. It’s the ideal form of the frozen variety you might get at the grocery store: a La Taqueria burrito in a world of microwaveable Amy’s Kitchen wraps.

Each comes with one of three fillings, with one sweet and two savory. The classic ($4.95) is vegan, made with a mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon and sunflower seeds that melt into a sweet and earthy syrup on the grill. I also loved the Yee Katsu ($6.95), a gooey chicken and cheese version that gets a tangy snap from generous amounts of Japanese Worcestershire sauce in the mix.

Sammy’s. Follow for pop-up locations and times.

Yang Jang Pi salad consists of bell peppers, shrimp and cold mung bean jelly at Hotline in San Francisco.

Yang Jang Pi salad consists of bell peppers, shrimp and cold mung bean jelly at Hotline in San Francisco.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

Yang Jang Pi | 양장피

Developed by Northern Chinese immigrants to Korea in the 19th century, Korean Chinese, or junghwa, cuisine is responsible for breakout hits like jajangmyeon, black bean sauce noodles, and tang soo yook, a fried meat dish coated in sweet and sour sauce. (Real heads know to order it with sauce on the side for dipping.) It’s also a favorite of Queens grocery owners Clara Lee and Eddo Kim, who opened Hotline in February as a love letter to the cuisine.

The yang jang pi ($20) is an explosion of a dish that’ll be familiar to fans of Great China’s double skin salad. A confetti pile of lightly cooked bell pepper, carrots, cucumber, pork and shrimp is tossed with a refreshing and nose-clearing dose of Chinese hot mustard vinaigrette. What really clinches the deal are the mung bean jelly noodles, cut to the size of postcards. Each is comically huge, like a mustardy bandana that flew into your mouth. The dish, really a salad in disguise, is a must for cleansing the palate between bites of even stronger stuff on the menu.

Hotline. Noon-3 p.m. and 4-8 p.m. Thursday-Monday. Takeout, delivery and indoor seating. Street parking. Wheelchair accessible. 3560 Taraval St., San Francisco.

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