If you emigrated to Seoul, how much would you miss mac 'n' cheese? Would you scour foreign supermarkets looking for cheddar and pasta elbows? Would you make your relatives send you boxes of Kraft? Would you open a mac 'n' cheese restaurant?
The two Korean-Chinese noodle shops that have sprung up along a four-block stretch of Telegraph Avenue in Oakland specialize in a couple of dishes that might just be the Korean equivalent of mac 'n' cheese and spaghetti with meatballs. And while the ethnicities of their owners differ, the restaurants share the same basic menu and prices.
Yetnal JaJang, Yuyu Za Zang, and the fleeting Za Zang (which opened in October and closed one month later, but still has siblings in San Francisco and on the peninsula) all have names that hint at their specialty -- jjajangmyeon, which exists in various spellings and translates as "noodles with black bean sauce."
In recent years, jjajangmyeon shops have popped up around the Bay Area. Yetnal JaJang, in the Koryo Plaza shopping center, was among the first. The bare-bones restaurant is a clean but classic hole in the wall: a dozen tables, a long counter and bank of burners for the cooks, and no color scheme to speak of. Owner Eric Kim can afford to scrimp on decor; after five years, a few more than its competitors, Yetnal gets the most business.
Its menu fits on a postcard-sized sheet of paper, and you can find photos of most items on the wall. While you look them over, the waiters deliver a pre-meal snack of yellow daikon pickles, raw onion squares and, for dipping, jet-black fermented bean paste, the base of the jjajang sauce.
Five dollars buys you a bowl of housemade ramen-style noodles covered in an inky, glossy sauce and stir-fried with sautéed onion and zucchini. Order the gan ja jang, and the noodles and sauce are served separately, with extra vegetables and beef added to the sauce. Mix and slurp: No matter which version, the sticky black stuff is blander than it appears, crunchy and slippery and a tad salty. The noodles won't propel you to gastronomic ecstasy, but it's easy to see why kids all over Korea live off it.
Yetnal's other specialty, jam pong (or jjamppong), has the opposite appeal: The bright-red soup, slicked over with an even brighter red oil, has octopus tentacles, prawns, mussels, and noodles floating underneath the surface. The color comes from chiles -- a whole lot of them -- but once you recover from the shock, you can taste a deep marine richness underneath. Don't ask the cooks for a milder broth, though, because they'll simply water it down. Suck it up and order the jjamppong at full strength, then stock up on extra napkins to wipe the sweat off your face. Look around: You won't be the only one doing it.
Lower on the short menu you can find the jjajang sauce over rice with a bowl of jjamppong broth on the side, or tasty japchae -- stretchy, transparent bean-thread noodles sautéed with vegetables and nutty sesame oil -- served on rice, again with a side of the crimson soup. Yetnal's dumplings, boiled or deep-fried, are nothing extraordinary, but they're stuffed with a pleasantly gingery ground pork. If you want to delve further into Korean pop culture, you can order gan poong shrimp, deep-fried prawns covered in a sauce that tastes like hot paprika mixed with ketchup and corn starch. Both the gan poong and Yetnal's sweet-and-sour beef are about as enticing as the Midwestern versions of these two Chinese classics, and should be left to the truly homesick.
So what's with the Korean-Chinese connection? Kim, who took over Yetnal JaJang three and a half years ago and opened a second location in Hayward seven months back, says both jjajangmyeon and jjamppong originated in Incheon, South Korea, during the 1920s. Cooks in Incheon's then-populous Chinatown had adapted common Northern Chinese dishes for local tastes -- substituting fermented black-bean paste for hoisin sauce, say, and dumping in fistfuls of ground chiles -- and these renditions caught on with the locals.
Larry Yu, owner of the four-month-old Yuyu Za Zang at Telegraph and 40th Street, is ethnically Chinese but born and raised in South Korea. He came to the Bay Area 26 years ago, and in fact used to own King Dong on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, where he first served jjajangmyeon. Unlike King Dong, the new restaurant, and its soon-to-open sister Yuyu Za Zang in Dublin, focuses on the noodles -- and now 70 percent of his clientele is Korean. Yu notes that there's actually a sizable Chinese-Korean community in Oakland. And he should know: Yu is vice president of the local branch of the Chinese-Korean community association, which meets several times a year for parties and picnics.
Chef Yu's menu is split between familiar Chinese dishes and Chinese-Korean dishes, and by and large the latter half duplicates Yetnal's. Yuyu also posts pictures of its specialties above the kitchen. But as if to confuse the uninitiated, the pictures are labeled with their Chinese names, not the Korean equivalents printed on the paper menu. Plus a couple of the photos don't match the real thing, as the waitress confesses when you point to them.
Yuyu makes its own noodles, which are udon-sized, chewy, and altogether more enjoyable than the skinnier, mushier noodles its competitor uses. (The quality still pales in comparison to Happy Family, a now-defunct Korean-Chinese restaurant on Telegraph and 44th, whose yard-length hand-pulled noodles made some of the best jjajangmyeon I've tasted.) Otherwise, the differences between the two restaurants' jjajang sauce are slight. My advice for either restaurant is to splurge on the gan za zang/ja jang version, with its separate bowls and enhanced bean sauce. (Are you getting all this?)
Skip Yuyu's zam pong (yet another spelling for jjamppong), as well as the chile-free udon soup. While Yetnal's jjamppong impressed me with its richness, Yuyu's spicy soup just made me sweat, and with or without hot peppers the seafood broth had little depth. I had similar feelings about Yuyu's boiled dumplings.
But Yuyu and only Yuyu makes a spectacular northern Chinese dish, described on the photo board as "pork with vegetables and mustard sauce." It looks twice as good in as the picture. The banquet-size platter is edged in a checkerboard of green, white, orange, and pink, bundles of julienned zucchini, carrots, octopus, and prawns. Within the border the chef mounds sliced pork stir-fried with onions in a simple soy-sesame glaze. Begin stirring the ingredients together, and your spoon pulls up sheets of transparent, housemade, wriggly bean-paste noodle buried under the meat. With the platter you're given a bowl of Chinese mustard -- the Vicks VapoRub of Asia, the sauce you can barely bear to dribble on your egg rolls -- to spoon overtop. But as with the jjamppong, you can't stint on the hot stuff: The bracing, tear-inducing mustard is just the catalyst to unite the salt of the stir-fried meat with the sweetness of the poached shellfish, the flash and crunch of the vegetables, and the appealing gummi-bear noodles.
One last bit about jjajangmyeon. Not only is it the No. 1 noodle dish in South Korea, the country's marketing machine has made it a symbolic meal as part of a campaign to turn the 14th of every month into a romantic holiday. According to the Korea Herald, March 14 is now known as "White Day," when young men who received chocolate gifts from their girlfriends on Valentine's Day are supposed to reciprocate with white chocolate. And April 14 has become "Black Day," when bitter singles are supposed to dress in black, drink coffee straight up, and eat jjajangmyeon. Mark your calendars.