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Jul 14, 2010 07:53 PM

My Bay Area Korean Restaurant Rankings/Discussion

I've seen the previous topics, but I don't quite feel like I can say all that I need to without going off topic (except for the Bay Area Korean Recap topic, but that one's becoming outdated - a bunch of recs from that topic are sadly closed), so I'm starting my own topic about restaurants of my favorite cuisine, Korean!

Anyway, I've gathered up all the Korean restaurants I've been to, most of them at least twice (because I can't always get a feel for a place if I only go there once) and listed them, starting with my favorite. (Ones at the top of a category I like better than ones at the bottom of a category, although by the time you get to the last ones it makes less difference.) Disclaimer: These are my subjective rankings, but if you have a recommendation for a dish at a restaurant I'm not a fan of, by all means let me know! :-)

My go to dish is usually the al tang or al jigae (pollack or cod roe soup), or kalbi tang. Or if I see some unusual dish on the menu, I'll probably try that. I'm not a fan of most BBQ places because 1) I don't like sugar/corn-syrupy marinades, 2) Most BBQ's are expensive and make you get 2+ orders, and I usually can't find anyone that wants to pay $20+ to cook your own food, and 3) I don't want to pay $20+ to cook my own food. (OTOH, I honestly don't mind the smelling like BBQ part.)

My #1 criteria is food (both mains and panchan), #2 is price and #3 is specialty (i.e. unusual dishes on the menu, or if a restaurant specializes in a certain dish.) I don't care so much about the service as long as it's not really bad. Also, as I don't eat refined carbs, whether or not a restaurant has brown rice can make or break it. (I have found, sadly that most Korean restaurants "brown rice" is really white rice with a few sprinkles of wild rice to make it purple -- still I'll give them credit for that over nothing.)

Top Destinations:
To Hyang, San Francisco (Everything I've tried here has been spectacular - esp. the yumso tang (goat stew), so kori chim (braised oxtails), dak dori tang (spicy chicken stew), al chigae, and bibimbap. The panchan are pretty amazing too -- they often have bellflower or fern & I've gotten ume and sea beans (!!!) before. Even more amazing is that this place is totally a one-woman show -- she makes everything from scratch, including the soy sauce, and grows her own herbs and plants. Their brown rice used to be a 100% whole grain red rice -- the last time I was there it was a mix between that and white rice -- a bit disappointing. Overall, this place never disappoints however.)
Sura, Oakland (As people in other topics have written -- their panchan is amazing. I've gotten some pretty creative things, like a green agar -- I wonder if that's colored with matcha or mugwort? Best chicken ginseng soup I've had, and uber bonus points for using brown rice for it. Broth is flavorful by itself and they serve a brown salt that you can add yourself depending on how you want to intensify it.)

Solid Bets:
Sui Tofu, Santa Clara (I'm intrigued by the specialty of this place, which is homemade tofu and porridges, but in my opinion, what really stands out is their animal part dishes, meaning al tang (which has a softshell crab in it), hae jang guk (coagulated beef blood & tripe soup), and the sauteed honeycomb tripe (great flavor, imo a bit too tough though.) In fact, plain sounding dishes (i.e. beef soup) are best avoided, in my experience. A few unusual panchan such as julienned marinated burdock and imitation crab/kelp noodles. These people are obviously doing their own thing, which I appreciate.)
Casserole House, Oakland (This also seems to be a one-woman show, although not quite up to the level of To Hyang, but still very good nonetheless. I remembered the panchan being fresh, although fairly standard (except the pumpkin.) She'll sell you packs of kimchi to go too. I like the industrial-strength casserole dishes (no poison! LOL), and the goat casserole was very good. Love the tea too, she showed me a dish of ingredients that she used such as cinnamon, goji berries, licorice, and ginseng. She also scolded me for drinking too much water for dinner and said I should drink tea instead... LOL!)
Korean Village/Wooden Charcoal, San Francisco (Huge menu, and everything I've tried so far has been very good -- hae jang guk, so kori chim, and al chigae with cod milt. They give you a pretty big selection of panchan, including the black beans that I like. They have whole grain brown rice here too, although not everyday.)
Cheon-Joo YoungYang DolSot, Santa Clara (It's on the lower end price-wise, but everything I've tried here has been very solid. Al tang, kalbi tang, yukyejang, and dogani dish--a big plate of ox cartilage. This is also the only place that I'm consistently able to get 100% brown rice, although they do charge $1 for it and the last few times it's been reheated, which is annoying. I appreciate being able to get a brown rice bibimbap, though, and in my opinion their dolsot bibimbap is the best of the best.)
Ilbunjee #1, Santa Clara (The only place I would regularly go for BBQ, so far. It's not seasoned, but they let the beef speak for itself. They use Black Angus beef for everything -- including the tripe! It's a bit on the pricy side, but I guess you get what you pay for. The al chigae is also very good, as is the marinated chicken gizzard dish. All of the panchan was good too, especially the cold potato salad and candied walnuts w/ tiny shrimp and fish.)
Kunjip, Santa Clara (The best gom tang specialty I've tried in the Bay Area.)
Obokjip/Obok Soondae, Santa Clara (I go here for the yukyejang, which is loaded with fernbrake and has a good amount of beef. Also no noodles, the way I like it. Their soondae is good too although I sadly can't eat that anymore.)

Some Interest (AKA Quantity over Quality -- sometimes I'm in the mood for massive amounts of cheap food over a designer meal):
Tobang, Santa Clara
Choi's, Santa Clara (The lettuce wraps are a nice idea. It's ~$30 and written as for two, but it could easily stuff three or four. Too bad I don't remember what anything tasted like, other than the bibimbap, which tasted like sesame oil.)
Seoul Gomtang, Oakland (I'll admit I've only been here once, but from what I had, the combination gom tang with intestine, tripe, cartilage, and brisket, I'll stick it here just because I wouldn't go out of my way to come here, but it's not quite bad enough to be 'don't bother'. I may go back after trying a few other places in Oakland.)
Han Il Kwan, San Francisco (They need to lay off the MSG a bit, but their food is very flavorful and they give you a lot of it. Once my friend and I went here for lunch and ordered the specials which were like $7 each -- they were pretty big, and we still got the full array of side dishes and refills)

Don't Bother:
Muguboka, San Francisco (This has a great menu, but sadly the actual dishes fall flat. WAY too much MSG, I'm talking 1980s Chinese Restaurant level, in just about everything.)
Seoul Gomtang, Santa Clara (It's here because it's about 30% more expensive than the one in Oakland. The portions are however huge. I don't understand this. I eat a lot, and I, on my most hungry day, cannot finish even half of the soups. This isn't the type of stuff that's great as leftovers either.)
Mom's Tofu House, South San Francisco (They do give you a lot, but I've gotten too much of a corn syrupy-msg reaction to bother anymore.)
Toyose, San Francisco
Dong Baek, San Francisco
Sigoljip, Santa Clara (If it was a few bucks cheaper I'd stick it in the above category. Not that it's a rip-off, but I'll admit I haven't been in much of a rush to go back. I did see some black goat stir-frys on the menu that looked interesting although the times I went there I was too cheap to order it, so I may come back for that.)
Um Ma Son, San Francisco
Korea House/New Korea House, San Francisco
Arang, San Francisco
Doobu, San Francisco
Cocobang, San Francisco
Berkel Berkel, Berkeley (The naming of this is clever, I'll admit, and it's mad cheap...but you get what you pay for. Still, I have the feeling it fits the starving student niche very well.)
Pine, San Francisco (The first time I went here I ordered the altang which was quite good; but the next three times I don't know what happened, but it was not good at all. Their panchan seem to have gotten worse each time too.)
Brothers I/II, San Francisco (I don't get the appeal. I wonder if by this point all the hype about this place is a running joke. IMO it's as generic as you can get, and that's even by SF Korean standards.)
My Tofu House, San Francisco (I don't get the appeal of this one, either.)
Heung Bu Nae, San Francisco
Koryo, Berkeley (This is the only restaurant in recent memory where I couldn't finish a meal due to it being disgusting. It's inexpensive, but the portions are extremely skimpy. I ordered the al tang, which seemed cheap at $7.95 but had two tiny pieces of fish roe -- not that that mattered because after a few spoonfuls I was feeling queasy, put my money down, and quickly left. I gave it another chance with the oxtail stew, which was better, but still failed to excite me.)

I haven't been up to Oakland much, but I've heard that Sahn Maru and Ohgane are good, so I will be sure to check those out next. The only Korean restaurant in SF I have some interest in that I haven't been to is Shin Toe Bul Yi, but from what I hear it sounds like it'll go into the QoQ category, so I'm in no rush. There are a few others in Santa Clara that I still have yet to try, such as Gaboja or Han Sung.

4869 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609

Korean Village Restaurant
4609 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118

Sui Tofu
2777 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA

Cheon Joo Young Yang Dolsot
3519 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95051

Casserole House
4301 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609

To Hyang
3815 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118

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  1. Great list! I'd like to know what you think of the soondubu at a board favorite, Pyung Chang, in Oakland.

    I agree with most of your tastes but do like some of the bar food places in SF like Arang and Cocobang, I feel they fit their niche. I didn't like Shin Toe Bul Yi, but some on this board like it. I'm still looking for a place that will fry the chicken whole.

    I really want to try To Hyang now, after your description. Jon Kaufmann gave the place a nice review recently.

    Shin Toe Bul Yi
    2001 Taraval St, San Francisco, CA 94116

    1506 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115

    550 Taylor St, San Francisco, CA 94102

    To Hyang
    3815 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118

    1. fab list!

      came across a few places that may meet your QoQ list:
      -jong ga house,, 372 grand ave. oaktown, 20ish lunch specials under $10. ayce bbq dinner option in evening (19.95)
      -korean cuisine (ba bang?) 4185 cushing parkway, fremont, ca. dozen lunch specials under $10 including bbq, fish, soondubu .ayce bbq option in evening
      -aunties's korean, 47894 warm springs blvd, fremont. lunch specials under $10.

      1 Reply
      1. re: shanghaikid

        Thanks for the great writeup! I've been a bit bewildered by all the Korean choices in Santa Clara; having some guidance to favorite dishes at a variety of places is a very nice help.


      2. Thanks for your comments and suggestions! I love going to new places, esp. ones off the "beaten path" (though I love Santa Clara/Oakland's Koreatowns, it's nice to find Korean restaurants in other cities too!) :)

        Will def. have to add Pyung Chang to my Oakland itinerary as it's a board favorite. And I'll head up to Fremont to check out their Korean scene.

        This weekend I visited Cho Sun Myun Oak in Santa Clara. I ordered the Dogani Tang. Although it's not a specialty shop they did seem to have a bunch of gom-tang type dishes on their menu (Will have to come back for the plate of cartilage, tail, and brisket) and they had pots of a white salt-like substance that you see at Seoul Gomtang and Kunjip. They have a pretty good wild rice/bean mix too, although a majority whole grain it didn't seem 100% and they charge $1.99 for it. I won't complain about paying $1 at Cheon Joo again.

        They brought out 8 panchan, including a few that are a bit more uncommon although nothing totally unusual. My favorites were the steamed egg, marinated brown beans, and napa. The quality was outstanding. The dogani tang, was good, not quite as good as kunjip, but I'd say slightly better than Seoul Gom Tang. It could have used more onions. The broth did seem pretty real (i.e. none of this added milk powder that I've heard of to make it white) although a bit bland. The pieces of cartliage were just a touch above the right level of chewy, but still very edible and I didn't have to tear off stray fat pieces.

        Although I've heard of the service being spotty here (not that it would matter to me), I found the service excellent although it helped that I was the only one in the restaurant at the time (late lunch, 4:30 PM.) She seemed to be surprised that I was devouring the outstanding panchan so quickly, and asked me, "do you like Korean side dishes?" LOL! She even brought me thirds on my favorites. (This was reminiscent of my better days, when I used to get thirds on everything...and finish them all. I find often times Korean restaurants are happy to bring you extras as long as you like them & can eat them all!) She was super nice; she did, however seem like the type that you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of!

        Will have to go back to Cho Sun Myun Oak again to try another one of their dishes (perhaps the Woo kuji galbi tang), but for now it seems like it could be a solid bet.

        Santa Clara, CA, Santa Clara, CA

        1. Going thru some old photos and found this one of Obok Soondae in Santa Clara that I meant to ask about. Glad to hear that the soondae (blood sausage) is good.

          3072 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95051
          (408) 557-0650

          2 Replies
          1. re: Melanie Wong

            This place has been on my list to try for years. Thanks for the reminder!

            1. re: drewskiSF

              You're welcome! I, for one, would love to hear more reports from you on Korean eats.

          2. >> I've heard that Sahn Maru and Ohgane are good>>

            We live in Oakland and have tried a number of the Korean restaurants. It is a much more sugar-laden cooking nowadays than it was when the "first wave" of Korean restaurateurs came up from LA to open in SF's Richmond district where we lived at the time. Ah, the memories....(cough)! Anyway, in Oakland:

            Sahn Maru: we noted it more for the buses of Korean tourists that regularly arrive. We thought it was okay, not especially high quality.

            Ohgane: We really do not like this place. It is so full of sugar I call it the "White Death by Domino's restaurant", and not fondly. There is sugar in everything, including most of the ban chan.

            Casserole House: Frustrating. We had one amazing dinner, and one terrible one. One lunch was okay but still not anywhere near amazing. But we ordered the same dishes! We are not price sensitive, but we are very much into consistency.

            Pyungchang Tofu: The seats will kill your back but they had the best seafood tofu soup of anyone. The ban chan are erratic; sometimes okay and sometimes just meh. But my spouse loves that soup and orders it everywhere. PT is hands-down winner on that soup, an especially comforting meal in winter.

            The old Sura was taken over by the daughter of the owners of Ohgane, with a partner. They opened Copan with a Momofuku alumni as fusion chef, but he quickly returned to LA and they turned it into an almost-identical twin to Bowl'd/Albany (they also own Mixed Grain, Spoon, and one or two others of the same ilk). It is now called Bowl'd BBQ. Menu is limited, but the quality of ingredients is VERY high. Also, the first time we came soon after it changed to B-BBQ, the food was less sweet than Ohgane but still a bit sweet. However, we come at least once a month and the food is now almost at the low level of sugar we remember when we first started eating Korean food almost 40 yrs ago.

            Have the seafood pancake at Bowl'd - it comes with a ground red chile pepper paste that has absolutely no sugar in it. It gives you the ideal "placeholder" for tasting the difference this makes in chile heat. We're not against all sugar, we just don't want it in every single dip, side, sauce, and dish we eat, LOL.

            2 Replies
            1. re: tre2012

              These days, maybe an ordinance will follow to discourage serving of sugared Korean specialties, for the customers' own good! Gastronomy would be a side beneficiary. :-)

              Thanks though for the very detailed reports.

              1. re: eatzalot

                You're welcome. It was a good time to revive this older thread, as Korean restaurants/bars get more popular.

                It's been very discouraging for us to face the increasing sugar levels in all the SE Asian cuisines. Both Vietnamese and Thai restaurants are serving much sweeter food than they did 30 yrs ago. Even the Japanese and Chinese restaurants are following suit, which is even worse. Sigh....