As far as I know, the only Korean food we had at the Mission before Sam Ho Won was at a convenience store on the 16thand – KD Market – which last time I checked had closed its kitchen during the pandemic – and Smile BBQ on the 22ndn/athe crazy little cafe that may be offers a few Korean dishes, as well as burgers and breakfast?
And now we get this! Sam Ho Won – the love child of Chef Corey Lee and Executive Chef Jeong-In Hwang (both famous from Benu), which they market as a “casual” Korean BBQ, but one we found a beautifully serene space in , bringing updated Korean cuisine using pristine ingredients, with touches of fine dining but without the stuffiness.
Sam Ho Won is reserved for gills 29 days in advance by reservation – BUT, you can try to show up right at 5:00 p.m. when they open and possibly sit like a walk-in, which we did on a Sunday night when we could sit relatively apart from others at that time. Although I expect this phenomenon to end as their popularity continues to grow.
The former Blowfish space at 2170 Bryant St. has been renovated but with a minimalist, industrial and sleek vibe, with light and darker wood tones. There’s a low counter where you can eat and watch the grilling action (all KBBQ dishes are grilled in the kitchen, except in the private dining area off to the side, which has a smaller grill) , as well as benches and small tables . The smells emanating from the kitchen are intoxicating, the lychee wood keeping the house fires going.
Accompanied by a steaming pot of terracotta barley tea, complimentary panchan are served at the table as soon as you sit down: a spicy daekon kimchee, a spectacular dish of soft tofu topped with soy and chili sauce, and a remarkable salad of thinly sliced pre-cooked potatoes, carrots and minari, a popular Korean green with a slightly peppery taste, a cross between celery and watercress. I could have eaten a whole bowl of this vinegar/sesame oil coleslaw, and our server offered me more when I told him it was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
Next, Galbi Mandu. This dish almost looks like a pancake when it arrives at the table with its delicately bound dumplings. The mandu, although crispy on top, was incredibly tender inside, the slightly spiced ground rib of beef, with a mustard sauce that accentuated it but didn’t overwhelm it – a warm and flavorful combination.
Then we had the famous double cut galbi ribs…
Heaven on a grill. The smoked meat, again, was tender but chewy, with a good fat to flesh ratio, and it was plenty to share. Our server suggested we order the side of sat – what you absolutely must do. Of course, in most Korean restaurants sat comes with your BBQ, but here it’s extra and it’s worth it.
Ssam simply means “packaged”. Here you get a basket full of fresh lettuces, chrysanthemums and giant perilla leaves to wrap the grilled meat in. The string of homemade sauces is not to be missed: soy with grilled onions and jalapeno, a chili sauce with coriander, doenjang (which I understand underwent a five-year fermentation) and a red chili sauce that packs a punch. All are perfect accompaniments to ensure that each crispy bite of your wrap is distinct from the last. We also ordered a side of steamed rice.
We’re done with the kimchi jjigae posole.
Kimchi jjigae is an intimate dish, just like its Mexican counterpart, pole, and I see where the inspiration comes from: these are both homemade dishes, to comfort and warm up. Although it was quite tasty, it wasn’t as impressive as the rest of the meal. The corny flavor of the hominy itself got a bit lost in the spiciness Kimchi broth that –– don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change it for the world – and we only found meager chunks of pork in our bowl. Once I put all the optional toppings into the hot broth, especially the cilantro, I felt more of the Latin flavor I craved, but lacked the dried oregano that often accompanies posole. Again, fine, but don’t expect a real fusion.
Sam Ho Won seems to be aiming for a marriage between home cooking and Korean barbecue, a delicate balance to achieve, especially when you share a home with Chefs Hwang and Lee, where you can benefit from their exquisite and painstaking attention to detail and technique. . . What is clear, however, is that taste is their ultimate goal.
I would go back for the ribs, but there are SO many dishes on this menu that I would love to try: the salted egg soufflé, the black pudding and scallion pancake, the grilled beef tongue, the sweet corn, honey and chilli butter, 5 years old doenjang and claim jiigae…the hits keep coming.
Sam Ho Won also serves a house menu, or prix fixe, which looks like a lot of food. I would try this with a group. For drinks, they offer soju, sake, cocktails made from beer, wine, sparkling, and Korean liquors.
Something for everyone, in a lovely setting, bringing one of my favorite cuisines to the Mission!
Sam Ho Won
2170 Bryant St.
San Francisco, CA 94110