As we were putting our bags in the trunk for our trip to California last month, our neighbor jogged up. He pulled the earbuds from his ears and asked where we were going. We told him, and that we were hoping to find some good food. And thank goodness we did, because all casual-like he told us that when he was in the Silicon Valley area, his Korean sister-in-law always liked to take the family to this place called Jang Su Jang for great Korean food.
Well. It just so happened that finding first-class Korean food was at the very top of our list. (SoCal is supposed to have some of the best in the world, so we hoped a bit would have migrated upstate.) And we were not steered wrong. Thank you, neighbor!
We didn’t even make it to my brother’s house before following through on our precious recommendation. The intent had been to find a place in Oakland to eat dinner before heading down to Sunnyvale, but there was an outpost of Jang Su Jang in Milpitas, right on our way to my brother’s house. It was fate.
We arrived at a strip mall full of intriguing Asian restaurants – a tofu house, a Vietnamese sandwich shop, a Malaysian place – almost all of which we would have liked to visit. While Arne found a place to park the car, I made my way through the knots of people waiting outside and put my name on the list. The hostess asked me if we needed a grill table and I said no, a regular table would be fine.
The glorious smell of Korean grilled meats made our 20-some-minute wait a bit of a torment, but the clear popularity of the place made us sure we had made the right decision. Finally our coaster buzzed and we hustled inside. The restaurant was huge and slightly dark, broken up by partitions and full of deep, comfy booths. The table across the aisle from ours, like many in the room, had a grill in the middle and a big metal vent hood above. Our table was just a table.
We settled in and looked over the illustrated menu. I ordered beef soup with hand-cut noodles and Arne ordered pork and kimchi stew. We received small glasses of water and watched waitresses walk by with trays covered with little plates of banchan – Korean side dishes. At the Korean BBQ House in Albuquerque, it used to be that bibimbap did not come with side dishes, and we hoped we hadn’t erred and picked a meal that wouldn’t earn us our beloved banchan.
We need not have worried. In a few minutes our side dishes arrived, eight small square plates each holding a different little delicacy. There were a couple of kinds of kimchi; sweet clear noodles; lightly seasoned bean sprouts; vegetables in a creamy mayonnaise sauce; one dish full of nothing but tiny, slightly sweet fish; and something I couldn’t identify, a crunchy vegetable marinated in a light sauce. That one was my favorite.
We barely had time to taste all the banchan before our entrees came out. Mine was delicious, spicy and rich with nice chewy noodles and shredded beef. Arne won though. His pork-and-kimchi stew came out in a heated dolsot, or stone pot – the same kind that dolsot bimbimbap is served in – so it was boiling hot. The flavor was incredible: spicy without being overpowering, rich with pork and graced with the special complexity of cooked kimchi, its rough and funky edges filed away to leave pure yum. The enoki mushrooms and lovely soft tofu didn’t hurt anything either.
Our waitress came by to offer more banchan, and I was so surprised I said no. I wish I’d taken her up on it; I especially loved the creamy salad and the unidentifiable crunchy vegetable and would have liked some more (even though I was pretty full by then). When the waitress brought to-go boxes, I asked her what that crunchy banchan was made of. She didn’t speak much English (and of course my Korean is non-existent), so there was some apologetic back-and-forth before I realized she thought I wanted more to take home and she couldn’t do that.
Finally I managed to ask my question, and she told me: It was chayote. Chayote! I was very surprised. I’ve never had chayote before, but I associate it with Southwestern and Mexican food. She also told me there was soy, sesame oil, and sugar. Maybe vinegar? I need to see if I can replicate it before the flavor memory fades any more than it already has.
In any case, Jang Su Jang served up the best Korean food I have yet had the pleasure to try. I’m not going to be able to get there often, so I hope to reproduce some of it at home. There are six Korean cookbooks waiting for me on the hold shelf of the Ernie Pyle library right now – I’ll let you know if any of them lead me somewhere great!