When I crave Korean food, it's rare that I'm daydreaming about eating bulgogi, kalbi, or KFC (sorry Colonel, I'm talking Korean fried chicken). While K-BBQ and spicy fried chicken wings are the most well-known and most widely-available Korean cuisine in SF, generally we Koreans don't eat those dishes on the daily (at least we shouldn't).
What I mostly want to eat is the stuff I grew up eating, that my mom made at home. I'm talking comforting soups and stews that usually take hours to make (and often, a special trip to the Korean grocery store) and will stink up your place with pungent, garlicky, and/or fermented odors in the process. (If that sounds gross to you, you probably shouldn't visit a Korean household, unless they have a dedicated kimchi fridge in the garage).
What's most disappointing about SF K-food is that the variety is a bit limited, especially in comparison to LA's Koreatown, where you have a seemingly endless choice of restaurants that specialize in a specific dish, like boyang tang (black goat stew), haejangguk (hangover soup!), and naengmyeon (a cold yam noodle dish). The North Oakland K-food scene is nowhere as diverse as LA's – it's hard to compare a small Bay Area neighborhood to a huge, sprawling district – but I'm still impressed by its offerings. There's Sahn Maru, Sura, Pyeongchang Tofu House, Casserole House, and a couple of spots that do justice to jajangmyun (black bean noodles) all within a few blocks of each other. This past weekend, I finally had the chance to try Seoul Gom Tang, a restaurant located on Telegraph at MacArthur Blvd, that focuses on one of my favorite soups, gomtang.
Gomtang is usually made by boiling down beef parts (and sometimes chicken or pork) into a rich, pale, and almost milky broth. The flavor and depth of this soup comes from the bones, meat, and cartilage that break down as the broth cooks. Gomtang is served simply, with raw scallions, salt, and hot pepper paste or flakes, all of which you add to taste, and sometimes thin, clear vermicelli noodles (I prefer mine without the noods). And of course, no Korean meal is complete without a bowl of rice and banchan (side dishes).
Seoul Gom Tang offers a variety of soups, including versions made with brisket; "mix beef;" ox tail, knee, or feet; and young chicken. I ordered the Gori Gom Tang, or oxtail soup, which is the variety I grew up eating. There are rumors of Korean restaurants adding milk to their gomtangs, to impart the richness and color that comes from a well-cooked soup, but you can usually taste the fraud upon first spoonful. Fortunately, I didn't question Seoul Gom Tang as a possible offender. Its broth – served bubbling hot in a stone bowl – is obviously naturally thickened (but not quite gelatinous) by beef bones and time. Also, the mostly Korean clientele is probably a good sign its legit.
The only disappointment was the oxtail meat itself, which wasn't as fall-off-the-bone as I like (Thank god for the bowl of toothpicks found at every table). And, if you're expecting a wide variety of banchan, you might be bummed. The offerings were three small dishes of kimchi – napa cabbage, daikon, and cucumber. The good news is that all were excellent. And besides, when eating komtang, the only banchan you really need is kimchi.
Seoul Gom Tang is located at 3801 Telegraph Ave. and is open Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-11 p.m. and Sat-Sun, 7 a.m.-11 p.m.