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Friday, June 12, 2015

Stone Bowl: Korean Home Cooking on Haight

Posted By on Fri, Jun 12, 2015 at 4:01 PM

click to enlarge Army stew or, as its known in Korean, Budae Jjigae. - ERIC S. BURKETT
  • Eric S. Burkett
  • Army stew or, as its known in Korean, Budae Jjigae.

When a Korean restaurant is named Stone Bowl (note: no website), it's pretty clear what the menu's focus is going to be. As I made my way to the new Lower Haight eatery, I had every intention of ordering the bibimbap, that wonderful Korean melange of meat and vegetables piled onto a mound of rice,and sizzling away in a very, very hot stone pot beneath an egg, sunny side up, just waiting to be mashed into the rest of the ingredients.


As I read down the menu, however — helpfully divided into two sections titled Hot Stone Pots and Warm Stone Pots — I found a dish I'd never had before, much less heard of: army stew. I wavered. I was in the mood for beef bibimbap, in fact, I'd been craving it all day. I asked my waitress. Would she order the bibimbap or the army stew?

Well, the bibimbap is good, she replied, but if you haven't had the army stew, then you might certainly go for that. But you could order the bibimbap, if you want to play it safe.

I ordered the army stew.

click to enlarge Dumplings and banchan. - ERIC S. BURKETT
  • Eric S. Burkett
  • Dumplings and banchan.

Waiting for my meal – I also ordered pot stickers as an appetizer – I had time to scope out the spare interior of the restaurant. Stone Bowl is located in the former Sushi 509, which had been Hanabi even before that and, perhaps wanting to indicate a complete break with the previous Japanese restaurants, they've left decoration to a bare minimum. Even with several other people in the restaurant, it felt oddly empty.

It wasn't long before food began to arrive, however — contra Yelp reviewers bemoaning slow service — and five varieties of banchan (kimchi, tubu choerim, seaweed salad, pickled radish, and fish cakes) were placed in front of me, along with a cup of boricha (a barley tea, and Korea's answer to black tea). Minutes later, dumplings – light and crisp with a flavorful pork filling – arrived along with a tangy dipping sauce.

Moments after I had finished those, the entree made its own dramatic entrance. The pot was boiling furiously as the waitress carried it carefully to my table, warning me about just how hot it was in case the red, magma-like liquid – topped with a slice of cheese! - wasn't warning enough. It continued bubbling away a few minutes more before it finally died down and I felt brave enough to dive in.

Like currywurst, that German concoction of sausage and curry, army stew was born of wartime shortages. Dating back to the postwar period, shortly after hostilities in Korea came to an end in 1953, Koreans, struggling just to find enough to eat, began making use of the canned foods brought to the peninsula by American and United Nations troops. SPAM, sausage, and canned baked beans all found their way into dishes alongside Korean ingredients. It's still popular with older Koreans, the waitress told me, but not as much with younger people.

Stone Bowl's army stew is made with SPAM, ham, and what I would swear was kielbasa; plus tofu, kimchi, carrots, onions, zucchini, and a rich, spicy stock loaded with gochuchang, the deeply flavorful chili paste made from chilies and glutinous rice, all swirling around strands of – yes – instant ramen noodles. It was full of umami flavors and that slice of cheese, which I had stirred down into the pot, gave body to every bite.

Stone Bowl has taken a few hits online for its prices – the army stew was $16 – but that includes rice, five varieties of banchan (which my waitress refilled without my even asking), and the boricha. With the $5 dumplings and the tip, I spent only $26. Army chow or not, it was worth it.

Stone Bowl, 509 Haight, 415-834-5025.

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Eric S. Burkett


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