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Specialist Referrals 

Everybody orders the same particular thing at these Korean finds — for a reason.

Wednesday, Mar 12 2008

Lots of cultures have a tradition of restaurants that specialize in one particular dish. American pizzerias, for example: While they often have full menus including pastas and entrées, you'll often look around and see nothing on any table but pizza. Or, for another example, Cantonese jook houses, which may offer more than a hundred choices on the menu, but every customer has a bowl of rice porridge.

This phenomenon is particularly common among Korean restaurants. In this week's column, we'll take a quick look at three of them: Zazang, My Tofu House, and Toyose.

Often the specialty is plugged right in the restaurant's name. Case in point: Zazang, the local branch of a small California chain. This brightly lit, no-frills place on Geary near the Kaiser Permanente hospital campus is the place to go if you're craving the Chinese-Korean specialty za zang myun (in Chinese, chachiang mein). This homey dish, which according to Village Voice colleague Robert Sietsema was brought to Korea by Chinese refugees after World War II, pairs a big pile of chewy, hand-pulled, spaghetti-like wheat noodles with a roughly equal volume of viscous sauce made from beef broth, black bean paste, vegetables, and pork. The inky-black sauce makes the dish look a little scary, but don't be fooled: This is mild comfort food, about as challenging as mashed potatoes and gravy. If you want to jazz it up, the dish comes with raw onions and extra black-bean paste, and there's hot sauce on the table.

Another good choice here is za zang bap, the same black-bean sauce served over steamed rice with a fried egg on top. The rice does a better job than the noodles of soaking up the gravy, and is easier to eat with chopsticks. This comes with a bowl of zam pong, a very spicy seafood soup that makes a nice contrast with the bland za zang.

The entrées come with a small serving of daikon pickle and tea, and that's it. You don't get the array of panchan (appetizers or side dishes) you would at most Korean places — though to be fair, Zazang charges significantly less. If you want a starter, there are pork potstickers; the steamed versions we tried were good and abundant. To drink, there are beer, soju, and Korean fruit wine. Service is simple but friendly.

My Tofu House has been around for quite a while, but it looks as if it recently got a fresh paint job. That paint is pretty much it for the decor: Outside of a few framed reviews and awards posted by the door, the walls are bare. Almost all the seats are in booths, and the servers are welcoming, so the place still has a cozy feel.

The name gives a strong clue to the house specialty, soft tofu soup. The nine identically priced versions on the menu are minor variations on the same dish: beef or seafood broth, a big scoop of silken tofu, seasonings, chile paste to taste (mild, medium, hot, or not spicy), and other ingredients are simmered together until they're cooked and the flavors blended.

Considering the under-$10 price, the restaurant puts out a generous spread of panchan: cabbage and radish kimchis; bean-sprout and cucumber salads; dried anchovies in a lemony marinade; and, surprisingly, a fried small whole fish, still warm, along with a big bowl of rice and traditional barley "tea." It's nice to have all that to snack on, because when the soup comes out, it's boiling, and the stoneware bowl it's served in keeps it scalding hot for a long time — long enough to poach the raw eggs you're given to crack into the soup, should you desire. You can always ask for more kimchi if you run out.

The #2, "combination soft tofu," includes beef, shrimp, and clams, and highlights the delicacy of the tofu. Ordered medium spicy, this had only a hint of chile; the mild presumably has barely a trace. The #4, "kimchi soft tofu," is a more robustly flavored dish, with pork, mushrooms, and a sour note from the cabbage kimchi. Ordered hot, the spice level was more what a chile-head would consider medium. The only extra-cost appetizer on offer is tofu salad, which would be a bit too much of a good thing, and unnecessary given the abundance of food. My Tofu House apparently has no liquor license — only soft drinks are on offer — meaning your total bill is guaranteed to be delightfully low.

Toyose, in the outermost Sunset, is virtually the opposite. The place is a soju bang (bar specializing in soju) first, and a restaurant second. It would be easy to miss the place: It's in a converted garage, and the facade still looks like a garage door. It's startling to step inside and find a cross between a fisherman's shack and a tiki bar, the narrow space lined with cozy booths and the walls encrusted with weathered wood and mysterious nautical-looking knickknacks.

Soju is a distant cousin of vodka, distilled from various starchy items such as sweet potato, barley, rice, and tapioca. Most of the varieties sold in California have around 20 percent alcohol, about half that of vodka, so you can knock back more shots without (or at least before) getting wasted. If you want to drink Korean style, click glasses and say "Kombe!" When pulling your glass away, lower it toward the table, unless you're the oldest or the boss, in which case you should raise it. Other drinks include beer, a selection of plain and fruit-flavored sojus, and a selection of unusual Korean rice "wines" with ginseng, wild roses, and other exotic flavors.

The kitchen's specialty is indicated by a sign on the door depicting a glaring, demented-looking cartoon chicken. As the hostess walks you to your seat, you'll most likely see a plate of wings or picked-over bones on every table, and for good reason: This is some of the best fried chicken in the Bay Area. That, at least, was the consensus among some obsessed Korean-Americans at nearby table, who spent much of the evening discussing other favorite chicken places such as Merritt's in Oakland and Ad Hoc in Yountville.

Toyose's wings are very lightly battered, and come scalding hot from the fryer, supercrispy, and nicely seasoned with salt, pepper, and chiles. As usual at soju bangs, you don't get any panchan, just some shredded cabbage salad and a bowl of Cheetos-like puffy shrimp snacks — but so what? There isn't a better bar snack in town than these wings.

These are just three of San Francisco's numerous one-hit wonders. What are your favorites? E-mail and let us know: Kombe!

About The Author

Robert Lauriston

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