The bu dae chi ghe has a fierce chile-red broth, boiling wildly in a shiny steel wok on its portable tabletop burner. It's bristling with kimchi, tofu slabs, and ramen noodles still cramped in the shape of the package. And there's something else: big, soft cubes of canned corned beef, slices of sausage as processed as hot dogs, and pieces of some Spam-like ham composite. Not exactly ingredients you expect at a place called Luxury.
But it's satisfying, in the way a fried baloney sandwich is satisfying fat, factory-meat salty, and easy to like. The kind of thing you'd eat at home if you had canned meats kicking around, hunched over an open newspaper, losing yourself in Savage Love.
That's the thing about Luxury, a new place on the northern side of Oakland's Koreatown: It doesn't aspire to deliver food with a fine edge or with the whiff of country tradition. It's a place designed for hanging out with friends, your central nervous systems spongy with soju, and acquiring the same blissfully greasy state of mind that comes with bacon, eggs, and hash browns at midnight. A restaurant, in other words, for the young and young-identified, the Korean version of Rudy's Can't Fail Cafe. The food has only to be big, reasonably cheap, and baseline tasty. Luxury scores on all three criteria.
Luxury is a restaurant type known as boon shik, which translates as "flour food." A noodle joint, a place with simple snacks and complex carbs, food that enables drinking but can also, under force of sheer volume, rescue any stomach lining in danger of drowning. Boon shiks became fashionable in South Korea in the 1980s as places that expressed young Koreans' new sense of freedom, which they flaunted like Armani eyewear.
That boon shik aura, a glow of cosmopolitan elegance, explains the restaurant's name even if the food doesn't. The Korean characters line up into a phoneticized transliteration of the English word "luxury."
Here, the cosmo elegance is the kind you can wedge into a couple of IKEA shopping carts. The handsome space has a high ceiling, rusticated floor tiles, and a trim wooden bar. All that swag Roman window shades, mod chandeliers, and vaguely Mondrian pastel prints looks better than generic. It looks nice. But it should: The owner is no novice restaurateur.
Mi Oh is well on her way to forging a horizontally integrated chain of East Bay Korean food think of her growing Web of restaurants as the Gap/Banana Republic/Old Navy of the banchan belt. Oh runs not only a couple of hangar-sized Ohganes (one on Oakland's Broadway, the other in San Leandro), she owns the Japanese-accented Sai Sai half a block from Luxury. And she's counting down to the launch of a Korean fast-food joint in Fruitvale's transit village. Luxury falls somewhere between, say, Old Navy and the Gap: inexpensive and serviceable, but with a little gloss of style.
That's what makes that bu dae chi ghe appealing, if not luxurious. It's a dish you don't often find in American restaurants, a little taste of what young South Koreans eat.
The small, or relatively small, snacky dishes are okay. Jjim man du, steamed dumplings filled with pork and Asian chives, were tender, suffused with a slightly sulfurous, green-allium taste. Soon dae, rustic sausage slices, had a funkier appeal, with chewy hog casings and a pork-and-noodle filling with the nubby texture of stiff tapioca pudding. It's tinted almost black with pork blood kind of bland on its own, but daub the slices in the little dish of salt speckled with pulverized chiles, and it's more than enough reason to order another bottle of beer.
Hae mul pa jun, a nicely sticky, nicely greasy turnip pancake, is the kind of thing that inoculates your stomach against too much soju. Crisp and almost lacy at the edges, it was a rough aggregate of scallion pieces, firm cubes of milk-white cuttlefish, and scallop bits: the bland, alkaline sweetness of sea protein with the french-fry taste of browned starch. It's homey in the best sense, like leftover mashed potatoes fried up as pancakes.
Other dishes crossed the line from homey to disappointingly familiar. Yang nyum chicken fried pieces tossed in sweet and spicy sauce breathed a whiff of the Chinese-American steam table. Spicy with hot bean paste, ketchupy, and cornstarch-shiny, it was an amalgam of Buffalo bar wings with sweet and sour pork. Cold noodles (mul naeng myum) came on a big round platter surrounded with handfuls of raw vegetables: red and green cabbage, scallions, carrot and zucchini strips. The noodles were coated in sugary, hot bean paste not bad, just boring, a party dish meant to fill up the guests cheaply.
Another big communal dish bo sam worked in a far subtler way than the cold noodles. The do-it-yourself wrap concept starts with a pile of gray-pink, lightly cured slices of pork flank. You lodge the pork in a leaf of salted Napa cabbage, add a raw oyster, kimchi, a few tiny, salty preserved shrimp, and a smear of doen-jang, miso-like fermented bean paste. It's a dish all about textures, the interplay of things in various states of cure and fermentation. It isn't the kind of thing that makes everyone eager to pack up the leftovers not to mention that large Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) are generally sticky and muddy tasting, definitely not my favorites. But Luxury's bo sam is a dish that keeps earthy and sophisticated in careful balance. Gol baeng e mu chim, soft gray sea snails studding a fiery pile of chewy cuttlefish noodles, were just plain earthy. In a good way, I mean.
Noodle dishes are student size. Pay an extra buck and you can get green tea noodles mixed in with your kim chee kal guk su, so-called chopped noodles in broth they're actually cut into long lengths. A huge bowl of wheat-flour noodles, kimchi, and black mushrooms in dried fish broth jan chi guk su is Korean street food. The version here was clean-tasting, delicious if rather plain, mandating heavy visits to the little pickles and side dishes, the banchan, to up the sexy.
And even if Luxury's banchan are limited just five dishes, plus warm, pork-studded egg custard that doesn't seem to faze the young Koreans and Korean Americans who show up here in the evening. Oakland's handsome new boon shik has an irresistible luster, and not just for guys in popped-collar polos and Hollister rope bracelets. Twelve bucks yields more noodles than anyone can eat and if you order right, more canned meat than you ever knew you wanted.
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