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Mar 16, 2009 10:03 PM

Jajangmyun at Szechuan Garden (Oakland)

This is an odd spot. It's on the Pleasant Valley end of Piedmont Ave in Oakland and from all indications from the outside, it's just another Americanized Chinese restaurant.

I've been looking for to-go finds in the area and discovered that the owners are Korean-Chinese and have a separate menu. I stopped by today and asked if they serve Korean jajangmyun, a noodle dish served that has been the topic of several threads on this board. An older woman who runs the restaurant confirmed the obvious and said it would take fifteen minutes.

While I was waiting, I found a two page menu written in Hangul without translation.

After I got my takeaway, she said what I think was goodbye to me in Korean (though I'm not). The noodles were in one container with some zucchini and raw cucumber and the sauce was in a separate container. There was more sauce than needed and I saved some for another meal.

While I've had jajangmyun a few times, I have little experience with Korean-Chinese food. It was similar to the other versions I've had but included seafood in the form of small lengths of squid tentacles and a few fried, but not battered, shrimp. Overall, the sauce had more oil than I expected, but the literal translation of the dish is fried sauce noodles. What I'm wondering now is how this ranks in the world of jajangmyun

I'm intriuged by the Korean menu and would return to explore it. The lady who helped me spoke English well and I believe she could adequately translate the menu if asked. It's in the Chow Places listing, but the only mention about it is about war won ton!?

Szechuan Garden
4290 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, CA 94611

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  1. Interesting discovery. Weird how Chinese restaurants so often hide their specialties from non-Chinese customers. Great China in Berkeley is also discreetly Korean-Chinese.

    The oiliness might reflect the fried noodles. Usually I see it served with steamed noodles.

    I think the most popular places in Oakland for zazang are Yuyu Za Zang aka Chef Yu's and Koryo Ja Jang (former a branch of Yetnal Zazang).

    Great China Restaurant
    2115 Kittredge St, Berkeley, CA 94704

    Chef Yu's
    3919 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609

    17 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      Also China Village -- I had no idea the owners were Korean-Chinese until Melanie reported that fact.

      1. re: a_and_w

        She reported that the owner is Shandong from Korea, but he hires Sichuan chefs.

        They have or had a version of zazang myun, but it's not the usual Korean-Chinese quart of black bean sauce version:

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          I wasn't referring specifically to the zazang myun. China Village presents itself as a sichuan restaurant and does not advertise its Korean-Chinese connection even though there are certain dishes on the menu. Wasn't that your point?

          Another random Chinese place that will prepare Korean-Chinese food if you ask is Dynasty restaurant in Marin. I've only had tan-soo-yok but I'm pretty sure my mom has had jajang myun there, too. A word of advice, not even all the waiters know this fact, so be sure to have them ask the chef.

          1. re: a_and_w

            China Village is one of the most serious Sichuan restaurants in the Bay Area, though an English-speaking customer might not guess that from the menu or the "Mandarin-Szechuan" on the awning.

            China Village
            1335 Solano Ave, Albany, CA 94706

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I...don't disagree. China Village is probably my favorite sichuan restaurant in the country. (I think it's much better than, say, Wu Liang Yi in NYC.) I can't imagine patrons would be confused about its focus -- isn't there a second menu of only sichuan dishes?

              1. re: a_and_w

                I've met people who were regulars at China Village and had no idea it was anything other than a generic suburban Chinese-American place. Obviously they didn't read the menu closely before ordering broccoli beef or whatever.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    That's much harder to do at China Village since they revamped the menu so that there are no longer separate menus for the Chinese-American and Sichuan dishes. But still, if you're expecting standard Chinese-American dishes and you see them on the menu, I guess you might not look further.

                    I feel like linking this whole thread to the heated discussion a while back about finding the "real" Chinese food in an otherwise ordinary looking Chinese restaurant and shoving it in the face of everyone who claimed that there was no such thing as a restaurant that was basically two restaurants: one serving Chinese-American food to patrons expecting it, and one serving "authentic" and/or regional Chinese food to people who were Chinese-speaking or otherwise savvy enough to ferret it out!

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      I've been going to China Village for years knowing to order the Sichuan dishes and avoid the Chinese-American generics, but I never spotted the Korean-Chinese dishes, and missed the occasional reference to them here.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        You're right: it's a restaurant that on one level appears to be a generic suburban Chinese-American restaurant, on another is well-known as one of the finest Sichuan restaurants around, and it STILL has another level of "secret" specialties!

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          If it's any consolation, I'm part Korean and love Korean-Chinese, yet I missed it completely, too.

                1. re: a_and_w

                  Correction: Feng Nian is the place we get Korean-Chinese in Sausalito.

            2. re: Robert Lauriston

              The noodles were boiled and were probably that fat udon style that can be found fresh or frozen.

              I find it odd that zazang is mild and bland for Korean food while the Chinese counterpart zha jiang mian is supposed to be spicy. I'll give Chef Yu's a try but I suspect that my exploration of the cuisine will branch out to the funkier dishes.

              1. re: PorkButt

                There's a fried version that's spicier, called Gan Ja Jang.

                1. re: DezzerSF

                  Just to clarify, it's the black bean sauce that's quicky sauteed in a wok with oil when making Gan Ja Jang, not the noodles. The noodles are always boiled, not steamed. Once the noodles are drained, they're often mixed with just a tad more oil (or cooked in water with a bit of oil) which gives them the bright sheen and helps the noodles from clumping together.

                  Samsung gan ja jang is gan ja jang mixed with seafood, which accounts for the price differential at many places. The samsung gan ja jang is usually a few more dollars then regular gan jang which just has bits of ground pork, no seafood. The cheaper regular jajang (not gan ja jang) tends to have a more watery consistency, whereas the gan ja jang and samsung gan ja jang have a much thicker consistency.

                  Most Koreans amp the spiciness of their sauce by adding red pepper flakes at the table.

                  1. re: cvhound

                    Just keep in mind that not all places distinguish between the seafood and non-seafood versions. I learned this the hard way as a child. I...still have trouble with tentacles.

                    1. re: a_and_w

                      cvhound has it right, I was trying to convey that the sauce had more oil than I had expected, not that the noodles were fried or tossed with lots of oil.

                      All the other versions I've had were made without seafood so I was surprised when I chewed on what I instantly thought was squid. Would have been an unpleasant mouthful for a_and_w....

            3. The oddest thing about this spot is that it still displays some of the architectural hallmarks of its previous life as a KFC. My kid used to always beg to go here (the lure of the fish tank), but I was never impressed. Definitely going to have to check out the Korean menu, as it's just a few blocks from home (and it has the only private restaurant parking lot on Piedmont Ave.).

              2 Replies
              1. re: lexdevil

                Ah, that place. Who knew!?

                Great sleuthing, PorkButt!

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  Yes, I couldn't imagine any hound going in based on the regular menu posted in the window. I stopped by around 5pm and the couple tables there were having fried chunks of meat in sauce with fried rice.

              2. Szechuan Garden also offers jampong and tang soo yuk, as well as all the other Korean-Chinese dishes commonly found at Shandong restaurants. However, I think these dishes are much better at Chef Yuyu's or Yetnal Za Zang (or whatever it's called these days) on Telegraph.

                13 Replies
                1. re: cvhound

                  Yetnal is now Koryo Ja Jang, same owners as the two or three other restaurants in that complex.

                  Yet Nal Za Zang
                  4390 Telegraph Ave Ste B, Oakland, CA 94609

                  1. re: cvhound

                    Have you tried Great China? If so, what are your thoughts?

                    1. re: a_and_w

                      Great China's "double skin" is great. I don't know which other dishes are Korean-Chinese, if any. Good Peking duck, even better tea-smoked duck.

                      One of the best and longest wine lists in town, which is puzzling since I hardly ever see anyone drinking wine there. Maybe the owner's a wine buff?

                      Menu and wine list are both on the Web site.


                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        I have always gone with Korean relatives, who do the ordering, but classics like tan-soo-yuk (listed as such on the menu) and dry-fried chicken (probably "Mandarin chicken" on the menu) are excellent. I'm guessing jaja myung is "bean sauce noodles" -- that's good too.

                      2. re: a_and_w

                        Yes, I've had the jajangmyun at Great China. Probably on par with GS, in otherwords, not great. My favorites are still Yuyu's and Yetnal. Between the two, I favored the gan jajang myun at Yetnal, but I haven't tried it since it became Koryo jajang. The gan jajang at Yetnal was really different from the regular jajang (don't know if it's true now that it's become Koryo). If there's more than one, I always order the most expensive one b/c I hate watery jajang sauce. If you're ever in S/F, the jajang myun at Shandong is also pretty good.

                        1. re: cvhound

                          Ah, Great China's "bean sauce noodles" is zazang myun?

                          And I guess "special combo soup noodles" is zam pong?



                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Correct. BTW, the double skin is also a Korean-Chinese specialty. My mother used to make it all the time as it was one of her signature dishes for dinner parties. However, most of the Korean people I know make it without the pork, just assorted seafood. Mafo tofu is also a very popular Korean-Chinese dish, as is the dried fried mandarin chicken (very popular dish at Shandong in S/F) and the ubiquitous tang soo yuk (sweet & sour beef).

                            Great China was a huge hit with my Korean parents who thought the food was very authentic and much to their liking.

                            1. re: cvhound

                              Mmmm...mapo tofu. Not as spicy as the sichuan version but the perfect pair with fried dishes.

                          2. re: cvhound

                            Thanks for the tip! To clarify, do you mean Shandong in Oakland or San Tung in SF? Or is there another Shandong in SF?

                            1. re: a_and_w

                              So sorry for the confusion. I meant to say San Tung in S/F. I tried the jajang myun at Shandong in Oakland and it definitely wasn't the Korean-Chinese version that I'm used to eating. I didn't like their version at all!

                              1. re: cvhound

                                I actually haven't been to Shandong in Oakland but San Tung in SF is a long-time family favorite! I also like how they put zucchini in the kung pao, which is totally inauthentic but still very tasty.

                                1. re: a_and_w

                                  Yes, San Tung received my parents' "stamp of approval" as well. They don't live in the Bay Area, but come to visit every couple of years. Having grown up during the Korean war, they love "hole in the wall" restaurants that are relatively inexpensive, but offer delicious food with ample portions.

                        2. re: cvhound

                          I'll go try the places that you've recommended but there is still something charming about how the couple at Szechuan Garden still persevere with their tattered bindings of a K-C menu in such an unexpected location.