SAN FRANCISCO — Twenty years after running his restaurant in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Yening Liang suddenly had a moment of epiphany.
It wasn’t enough, he realized, that Hop Woo’s menus translated dishes like barbecue pork and roast duck from Cantonese into English. If he wanted the city’s Mexican, Central American, and other Latino communities to feel welcome, he should include Spanish. When Mr. Liang, known as Lupe, passed away in May, his inclusive approach to menu writing became part of his legacy.
A menu can suggest an invitation, a faintness, an obsession, but it is never a mere catalog of what to eat. Like any form of writing, it reveals countless small but important decisions — what to expand and compress, what to inflate or evade, who to address or freeze, and how to draw a reader’s attention to the few, precious ones. moments you may have. the.
At San Ho Won, a Korean barbecue restaurant that Jeong-In Hwang and Corey Lee opened in San Francisco last November, the menu uses a combination of Korean characters, English transliteration, and translation. A QR code acts as a footnote on the page and directs you to a glossary.
Some entries are short summaries, like the one for joke: “rice porridge.” Others are finer. An entry for jebi churi builds on the Korean butcher’s definition of the cut, a slender cut of beef that “extends from the top rib to the neck” and, when viewed at an angle or cut across, “resembles a swallow (jebi) in flight.”
If you didn’t know this before, jebi churi may now seem like the only acceptable way to describe it – the name of the thing inextricably linked to its shape. And now that the lights are on, the English translation, “beef neck filet” seems a bit clunky, doesn’t it?
Here’s a menu that insists on the need for a shared culinary language with more Korean terms, then proves their necessity. Sometimes no other word is enough. I was moved by this dedication to specificity even before I tried a bite of jebi churi and drifted away, marveling at its deliciousness.
Don’t mind the quality of your ingredients or your marinade – barbecuing like this doesn’t just happen, casually, at the table, drinking beer and talking, looking up an actor’s name on your phone to settle an argument.
It takes both expertise and hypervigilance to keep time with the charcoal. In other words, it requires dedicated cooks. San Ho Won has about three working the grill in the kitchen on a busy night.
Tender, yet springy, thick-cut galbi, beef tongue, jebi churi, and richer, fattier pieces of rib-eye cap are evenly colored and shiny, subtly crispy on the edges, impossibly juicy on the inside. The meat arrives hot and plump from the intense, scalding heat of the coals, swathed in the deep savory flavors that you can only get from cooking this way.
Mr. Lee, the owner of the restaurant and the chef behind the fine-dining restaurant Benu, had the idea for a casual Korean restaurant since 2012. But very few spaces fit the building codes for a charcoal-fired indoor California kitchen, and he didn’t sign the lease for the sprawling one-story space in the Mission district until 2019.
During the pandemic, Mr. Lee and Mr. Hwang, the restaurant’s chef, had even more time, but they used it wisely by testing many of the dishes that now appear on San Ho Won’s menu and serving them as takeaways. to sell.
It’s not just Mr. Hwang’s barbecue that shines, but the hints of sauces and pickles that spice it up, and the different styles of kimchi that go with it – the sharp but juicy stuffed cucumbers, oi sobagi; and the cute, almost bite-sized chonggak, or horsetail radish.
One of my favorite things on the menu is the dainty crunchy sanma pajeon, the green onion and mountain yam pancake, with its hyperbolic contrast of crunchy and smooth. The jook, a rich rice pudding made with chicken, ginseng and abalone, drizzled with seaweed oil, is a luxurious, almost muscular flex.
Not cooking your own food at a Korean barbecue restaurant, or at least sitting by the warmth of an open grill, could indicate a loss of the genre’s community spirit. But the room has the comforting, casual clatter of a nocturnal place that’s been around for years — hectic, warm, efficient — with unflappable servers gliding quickly through the chaos, reorganizing it along the way.
Most of the food is served family-style for sharing, and tempting specials are simply written on scraps of paper and glued to the dining room’s thick wooden columns. You can order these — like a recent version of ganjang gejang made with marinated Maryland soft-shell crabs and whole egg yolks — a la carte.
But don’t forget the set meal, which is structured very differently from a formal tasting menu. A recent version included succulent beef mandu in a crispy, glossy lace, along with the large, shaky egg souffle, gyeran jjim, in a head-filling anchovy broth, served so hot it warmed the esophagus as it slid down.
The meal is a feast, and the dishes are not handed out one at a time, in individual portions, but in a continuous, overlapping order. The barbecue course will happily interrupt the banchan, pancakes and dumplings. The last few bites of the barbecue will slide over to make way for joek, or pozole, and so on.
You definitely want to come back to try everything, but this carefully curated part of the menu is a good start.
San Ho Won, 2170 Bryant Street, San Francisco; 415-868-4479; sanhowon.com