Eating My Way Down Korean Drive
4315 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
Open daily (except Tuesday) 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
Along Telegraph Avenue near my Oakland apartment, there are several Korean businesses and restaurants that it’s like the start of Korean Drive. There was an effort to call this North Oakland business area Koreatown, but that got shot down by competing businesses.
Still, I like knowing I’m within walking distances of my kim chi or bi bim bab fix. I haven’t really explored many of the Korean restaurants (except Pyung Chang Tofu House) so I decided one week to check out dinner at the often-mentioned Sahn Maru Korean BBQ.
Sahn Maru has been around for awhile, starting out in Berkeley. It’s even been featured on “Check Please!” on KQED.
On my first visit, the brightly lit dining area looked huge with all its empty tables. It’s not like Sahn Maru isn’t popular – several tables came in after me. It’s just they have so many tables they would have to be white hot to fill the house.
I sat in a row of tables that faced a large flat screen TV that was tuned into the Korean channel as I watched an amusing Korean variety show.
The menu is quite extensive, with a lot of options. What’s interesting is that the service, while friendly, is filled with long gaps. For example, on both times I visited, it took a long time from the time I’m seated to when the server checked to see if I was ready to order (even after I closed the menu and started reading my magazine).
I played it somewhat safe on my first visit by ordering the popular bi bim bab, which is the rice dish with a variety of meat and vegetables on top and often served on a hot stone plate that creates a sizzling crusty rice bottom. Sahn Maru offers an interesting version of bi bim bab called hae mool dol sot bi bim bab ($14.95), which is a seafood version of the rice dish instead of thinly sliced beef.
Typically at Korean restaurants, they serve an array of side dishes called panchan. I thought they come out soon after you order, but at Sahn Maru they arrive right before your order comes, so they really work as sides as opposed to appetizers.
Sahn Maru served up about nine dishes and a bowl of seaweed soup. The dishes weren’t anything unusual or spectacular, including things like steamed broccoli and bean sprouts, and some items were mild or bland. Even a pretty dish with a cooked daikon gleaming white in its purity wasn’t very appetizing.
When my bi bim bab arrived at the table, it was steaming and crackling from the hot stone pot. The dish looked perfectly presented with a tiny raw egg yolk on top. I mixed all the ingredients together and dug in, and the first thing I noticed was the predominant presence of zucchini cubes.
The flavor was good, but all the seafood pieces of curly octopus, squid and shrimp were so small that I didn’t really get the full flavor of what I was eating. The ratio of toppings to rice also seemed to lean heavily on the topping, so I couldn’t say I felt full afterwards.
On a return visit, I decided to try something new and something old. The something old was the dak goo ee or BBQ chicken (mild version, $18.95). I love Korean BBQ, but since I’m not a red meat eater I often go for chicken. Sahn Maru’s version is a huge platter that comes out served on a hot iron platter that keeps the chicken sizzling.
I don’t know if this is traditional (I admit I’m still learning the etiquette and customs of Korean dining) but the dak goo ee was served with a plate of fresh lettuce leaves. So I just assumed that I was supposed to put the chicken in the leaves along with the paste served on the side and then make a roll. I tried this once, and it was refreshing but kind of messy eating with my hands.
Side note: Sahn Maru, like a lot of other Korean restaurants, use these chop sticks made of metal, which I’m not very used to maneuvering so found them hard to eat with.
To try something new, I ordered under the specialty section of the menu and got the heuk yum so tang ($19.95), which is sizzling black goat stew with sesame leaves and scallions. Also served in a stone pot, the stew had a rich soup and was served with a mix of chili sauce that I was instructed by my server to mix into the stew.
The stew was more liquid like a soup, and as I dug into the goat meat, it was a mixture of meat on bones or tendons. The pieces were hot coming from the stone pot, so it’s a dish that you slowly eat. And the meat tasted what I thought black goat would be, which to me means a bit of gamey-ness and a bit tough. It’s like the kind of meat you’d expect to eat in the winter when there’s no other food around because the cold has killed everything off.
While the stew had a nice flavor, I don’t know if I’m a fan of black goat meat, and not sure if I’d try it again.
One thing that I enjoyed about my visits to Sahn Maru is how my meal always ended with a complimentary cup of sujeonggwa, a sweet cinnamon and persimmon drink served cold. The flavor was therapeutic, making me feel like I was ready to head into the cold night.
Sahn Maru has an extensive menu, so it’s a great way to introduce myself to more traditional Korean dishes. But while the food seems good, it tends to lean more on the home-cooked side than an exceptional restaurant experience. It’s a nice neighborhood dining spot, but not one that’s a shining example of Korean cuisine.
Single guy rating: 2.75 stars (Average Variety)
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
Tuesday, February 08, 2011
Eating My Way Down Korean Drive