Jang Soo BBQ

Tongs: a study in indispensability
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paulr@sfbg.com

You won't find kimchee mousse on the menu at Jang Soo BBQ, but that's not a criticism, since you probably won't find it on any menu in town. Korean cooking, despite its many charms — could it be the most winning of the spicy cuisines? — has so far resisted the dressing-up that has given a Cali-French gloss to food traditions from around the globe. If you're eating Korean food here, you're almost certainly in a traditional Korean barbecue joint, with a grill (charcoal or gas, lighted or not) in the middle of your table. And if you're lucky, you're at Jang Soo, which is one of the most attractive such places, if not the most attractive, in the city.

Let's start with the simple matter of aesthetics. At more than a few Korean spots, even some of the best-known ones along Geary in the inner Richmond, the décor situation can range from the indifferent downward to the downright harsh, with overhead fluorescent lighting worthy of a black-site interrogation room being a particularly noisome likelihood. Jang Soo, by contrast, gleams gracefully with spot and sconce lighting. And I like the panel of checkerboard-style tiles along the wall at each table; the black and white ceramic squares serve as a kind of backsplash in case your adventures in grilling start to get out of hand. (Since the grills are gas fired and heat up very quickly, this is not a far-fetched scenario.) Most and best of all, the place seems clean. If you could know only one fact about a restaurant's physical plant, this is the fact you would value the most.

The food suggests that the kitchen, while invisible to the clientele, is in equally good order. There are no big surprises on the menu — except, perhaps, for a greater number of seafood dishes than experience has conditioned one to expect in Korean restaurants — and plenty of familiar faces, among them bul go gi (slices of broiled beef) and bibimbab (beef salad). But the freshness of the ingredients and the care with which they've been handled is palpable. A small dish of pickled cucumber coins, for example, had the satisfying crunch of the homemade kind and would have been good even without the accompanying red chili-garlic paste.

The cucumbers, of course, were presented as part of that cavalcade of small dishes (banchan is the Korean word) that give the flavor of a banquet to meals in Korean barbecue restaurants, even at lunchtime. Jang Soo's portfolio of treats includes (in addition to the cukes) bean sprouts, marinated tofu strips, seaweed dressed with spicy sauce, pickled threads of carrot and daikon radish, geutf8ous bricks of rice paste, hot scallion fritters, and of course kimchee — excellent, with nonsoggy cabbage and plenty of garlic and chiles in harmony. Dinnertime adds a fix of dried sardines in spicy sauce, and of course, noon or night, there is soup, perhaps seaweed or tofu.

These preliminary spreads can have much the same effect in Korean restaurants that plates of chips and salsa do in Mexican restaurants: be so addictively tasty and so filling that the main courses, when they finally arrive, can seem anticlimactic or superfluous — unless you are starving, and we were. Over the noon hour, the tabletop grills seemed to be in hibernation, and plates of food emerged fully cooked from the kitchen: pork bul go gi ($9.95), a pile of marinated, broiled meat shaved into strangely shaped ribbons, like scorched rubble from a house fire, and o jing au bokum ($8.95), chunks of sautéed calamari in spicy sauce. I found the calamari's "spicy" sauce to have a notable, not quite ideal sweetness, while the seafood itself was a little tough — always a risk with calamari, which overcooks quickly and unforgivingly.

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