The marvel of dining at some restaurants is knowing you're the endpoint of an intricate chain of command — a quick-moving, overheated team of cooks feeding plates to a crew of waiters and food runners. And then there are restaurants like To Hyang in the Inner Richmond, which has barely 30 seats, one of which often doubles as parking for a toy police car. Here, you have no sense of a dozen trained specialists, fiddling over the placement of each lettuce leaf. Instead, from the first bowl of stewed turnip greens to a stop-sign-colored stew of cod steaks and radish discs, you sense the presence of a single cook's hand.
That hand belongs to Hwa-Soon Im. She owned a restaurant in Seoul decades ago, but between moving to the United States and raising four daughters (some of whom now help out at To Hyang), she put the idea on hold. With children now grown, Im finally opened her place two years ago. One daughter spells her in the kitchen on weekends, but it's largely Im gardening herbs on her back patio, putting up all her own pickles, making her own base sauces, and cooking dishes to order. Only a few ultralocavore cooks in town can rival her DIY-ness. And you can taste it in the food: Even classic recipes in every Korean cookbook on your shelf taste different, singular, personal here.
You can order a sizzle platter of bulgogi, but you might as well walk down the street to Brothers or Wooden Charcoal Barbecue House and grill it yourself; To Hyang is a place for broiled mackerel, cod-roe soup, or stewed pork ribs. It's a restaurant where you come for a simple weeknight dinner, or where you bring a couple of friends on Friday night to split a carafe of fig-infused soju (distilled rice wine) and a bubbling hot pot.
There's not much to the room — walls of white tile and white paint, plants around the window, framed calligraphy and paintings of rustic scenes, grandchildren occasionally escaping from the kitchen for a look-see lap around the dining room before being ushered back out of sight. The most intriguing part of the decor may be the large, fluted glass jars at the back, two of which contain gigantic roots from Im's mother's farm that have been infusing in clear soju for a quarter-century. (A while back, her daughter told our table, they opened up the ginseng wine and sold half-bottles of it for $100; after only a week, they stopped because it was selling too quickly. Now they're waiting for another decade.)
Each meal, of course, began with panchan, the traditional array of seven or nine small plates of pickles, preserved vegetables, and side dishes that Im's daughter Min set on the table with mugs of roasted-barley tea the moment our order went in. Im's panchan were homespun and all the better for it. Her cabbage kimchi had a clean, precise tang, light on the salt and preserved shrimp, and a stinging but quick-fading heat; her radish kimchi was so fiery that sweat beaded up along the curve of my eyebrows. Other bowls contained crunchy, inch-long dried fish; translucent bean sprouts flecked with sesame seeds; and pickled radish threads dyed pink with chile powder. One night we received vinegar-pickled zucchini slices, another night tiny fritters made with fermented soybeans, chiles, and ground pork. They tasted like sausage patties. We asked for thirds.
On one of my visits, the panchan included four kinds of greens and stems, each with its own subtle dressing: salted and dried radish leaves, braised just long enough to restore a watery crunch; spindly fernbrake stems; satiny green turnip leaves and sweet braised roots; and blanched perilla leaves, their recalcitrant mint flavor emerging as I chewed. It reminded me most of my meals in southwest Korea last year, when I spent so much time crunching roots and greens that I began inspecting the teeth of everyone around me. (Much sturdier and whiter than mine.)
For all its Sturm und Drang, much of the flavor in Korean cuisine depends on a few core seasonings and sauces. Walk through any Korean supermarket in the U.S. and you'll identify them by volume: five-pound bags of chiles and dried anchovies, gallon jugs of soybean sauce, an entire aisle devoted to tubs of fermented soybean paste (doenjang) and fermented chile paste (gochujang). Only a few decades ago, these master sauces were the measure of a good cook, but now most urban families don't have the time, space, or skill. In the States, only archtraditional cooks like Im bother.
Her cooking shows the range of Korean cuisine, from the motherly to the ornate, the mild to the incendiary. Take the sujebi ($10.99), as plain as can be, based on a clear broth made by boiling dried anchovies, which doesn't taste fishy so much as, paradoxically, bland and deep. In the broth float chunks of white potato, a few carrot and green onion threads, and what's often translated oh-so-appetizingly as "dough flakes," wrinkled, chewy hand-formed wheat dumplings that look like strips of fish fillets. I made a mental note to return for a bowl the next time I came down with a cold.
On the other end of the spectrum was a brassy, bold pork belly "salad" ($15.99) heaped on a two-foot-long platter: squares of steamed pork belly, meaty and yielding, tossed with green onions, pickled cabbage, and herbs in an opaque crimson dressing clanging with vinegar and throbbing with Im's sweet-spicy gochujang. Min kept worrying over whether her mother had made it too fiery; no, we gasped, and kept on eating.
Im's food can be as simple as the lightly cured mackerel ($12.99), pan-fried until the skin forms a deeply bronzed crust and the flesh turns impossibly buttery, and as refined as oxtails ($18.99) braised with red dates, chestnuts, and pine nuts in a soy-tinged broth. The beef was simmered so long we could use chopsticks to ferret every morsel out of the nooks of bone, and the date-sweet sauce was so rich and balanced we drizzled it over our rice bowls, unwilling to leave any in the pot.
I didn't enjoy all of it — for one, I found Im's yukhoe ($18.99), or beef tartare, too sweet. The mound of chilled, hand-chopped sirloin, crowned with an egg yolk, was tossed with sesame seeds, scallions, deeply toasted sesame oil, and a cloying amount of sugar. And the cod maeuntang ($16.99) was decent but anticlimactic; this thin, searingly spicy stew of cod, daikon, and chiles didn't show off the depth of her skill.
The dish that did was the doenjang jjigae ($10.99), or soybean-paste stew, one of those everyday dishes families boil up for a quick dinner or serve on the side. Here it was worthy of my whole attention. A robust, winy, layered smell rolled off the murky soup, and chunks of squash, onion slices, and tofu cubes bobbed on its surface. Storebought doenjang tastes much like Japanese miso. But Im had made hers the traditional way: cooking the dried soybeans, then stirring in malt, adding a dollop of her 25-year-old master doenjang to ensure the right flavor, and setting jars of the paste aside to age for at least six months. The doenjang she's using in the stew right now, her daughter says, was started before To Hyang opened. You won't taste its like anywhere else in town.