Saturday, April 19, 2008

Dish on Dining: Gaboja Sojubang (closed)

Home-made Korean Dishes in a Lounge
UPDATED ON 7/22/08: The restaurant was left abandoned and after several weeks a sign was put up looking for a new tenant.
347 14th St. (at Webster), Oakland
Downtown/Chinatown
PH: 510.272.0046
Major credit cards accepted
Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.


You can feel intimidated standing outside of Gaboja Sojubang, a Korean restaurant just east of Oakland’s Chinatown. The photos of the dishes look good in the window, but everything is written in Korean. I got the same twinge of fear I get at restaurants in a foreign country where I feel like it’ll be a big production of sign language just to get a meal.

But I’ve walked past Gaboja Sojubang often from my office on my way to Chinatown for lunch—even before when it was known as Core Lounge and was more of a karaoke bar. I don’t know what the dishes are on the sign outside, but the prices looked interesting for lunch (about $3.99 to $5.99). Plus, there were always a few Koreans eating inside, so it couldn’t be that bad, right?

I finally got the nerve to go in for lunch a few weeks ago and it was pretty packed with a mixed crowd of diners. I waited a bit until a kind-looking old gentleman motioned me to one of the tables. I sat down and waited, and waited some more, as I watch this young guy running from table to table but never looking in my direction. He was the only server and looked like the son of the owners.

The room had a big screen television, which was off when I was there but I don’t know if it comes on for dinner or maybe for some late-night karaoke. At a couple of tables, people were eating big pots of food in soup that were being cooked at their table.

I finally got up and picked up my own menu from the front. The menu, luckily, had English subtitles to explain the dishes. It was a nice mix of appetizers, traditional meat dishes, casseroles and soups. But I was disappointed to see that most of the dishes were more than $8. Apparently, the $3.99 and $5.99 prices advertised in the sign outside were for the vegetarian side dishes.

When I was finally able to get the attention of the young guy, I ordered the Ojingo Dupbob or Squid with Vegetables over Rice ($7.99). Then he brought over the panchan, which are little plates of side dishes served before virtually every Korean meal. I admired the dishware they came in, and was pleased that the panchan seemed fresh and of decent quality.

During this visit, the panchan included the traditional Napa cabbage kim chi, black beans, dried tiny fish, and pickled preserved vegetables.

The poor service was made up for by the quick turnaround for my order. It seemed like my Ojingo Dupbob came in less than five minutes. The plate looked beautiful, with this rich, juicy-looking sauce mixed in the stir-fry with a nice mound of steamed rice on the side. (So technically it wasn’t “over” rice.) The plate looked so lovely that a table next to me pointed at my order and told the waiter, “I’ll have an order of what he’s having.” (I really am a trend-setter. Remember when that happened to me at Coi?)

But once I started eating the dish, I realized why it came so quickly. The red paste, which is the traditional sweet-spicy paste used in many Korean dishes, was barely blended through with the ingredients. It was as if it hardly had time to warm up. The squid pieces were nice and tender, but they were buried in a pile of onion and scallions. As for other vegetables in the mix, there were maybe two or three pieces of broccoli and I think two or three button mushroom slices.

I felt cheated by false advertising (it really should be called Squid and Onions with Rice), just like how I felt I was misled by the sign outside advertising cheap prices only to find out it wasn’t for any of their main dishes.

I waited for nearly 10 minutes after I finished eating to see if the young guy would come over and ask if I needed anything else or if he could bring my check. But after watching him walk by me a few times without looking at me, I got up and paid up front and left.

Despite my unsatisfying lunch, primarily marred by the neglectful service, I decided to return because maybe it was a fluke? Also, I was really tempted by those pots of soup cooking at the tables.

So this week I returned with my friend Jeanne because I could never eat all that food in the pot by myself. It really is an order that’s more fun to share.

Jeanne and I arrived a few minutes before noon and Gaboja Sojubang didn’t seem to be as crowded. In fact, I think there were only two other tables with guests. So we were seated promptly and menus were brought by the server right away. (I’m pretty sure it was the same young guy.)

We ordered the Boolnag Jungol or Beef and Octopus Casserole ($23.99), which is probably one of the more common Korean dishes next to bulgogi and bi bim bap. You also have the option of adding noodles so we ordered our Boolnag Jungol with ramen noodles for an additional $2.

Our mini parade of panchan dishes arrived. It was similar to the first time except this time we had boiled, marinated cold potatoes and spicy bean sprouts.

The server set up our tableside burner and not too long after that came our casserole, which was this huge bowl of food that looked so appetizing. And this time it really seemed like how it was advertised, filled with thin slices of beef, cuts of octopus, tofu, daikon, jalapeno slices and onion all in a light soup base. The only thing that was off was the ramen noodles added in. It was basically a bar of instant noodles tossed in the soup.

The idea with the casserole cooked at your table is that the food is a hearty family meal, with the ingredients partly cooked and finished off at the table. But the food really looked pretty much cooked, so Jeanne and I turned down the burner and dived in. (We did leave the noodle bar alone for a bit to soften.)

All the ingredients were nice and well prepared, but nothing special. The soup was tasty but not necessarily spicy. When we finally dug into the noodles (which were actually tricky to scoop out with a ladle without splashing on your shirt) it was like any instant noodles. As expected, the noodles got soggy as they sat in the soup while we ate our lunch.

In the end, the noodles were a bit unnecessary (especially since we were served two bowls of steamed rice with our order). The overall dish felt authentic and was filling for the two of us.

The food experience was a bit better in this second go around than my first visit, but service still was lacking. Even though the young guy got our orders quickly, he never checked in with us until he brought us our check. And I noticed the same thing with the other tables. I saw one guy get up to pour himself more tea.

Gaboja Sojubang has a high-end look but runs like the mom-and-pop shop that it truly is. The food is decent and authentic, but with such poor service and so many other Korean options in Oakland, next time I’ll probably continue to walk on by on my way to Chinatown.

Single guy rating: 2 stars (authentic and clean, but have patience)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

1 comment:

foodhoe said...

Chef Ben, that's too bad about the neglectful service, it looks like a good spot. The instant noodles didn't look like they matched the thick stew very well.