Mind the Bangover 

Behold Oakland's soju bars, where the food is nothing special but the drinks kick your ass.

It's amazing how fast that first carafe of soju cocktails went down. The second, too. One Saturday night, several of us sat around a table at Soju Bang watching a pirated copy of Ocean's Twelve on the TV screen, trying to stay sober-ish until our food arrived. But when tradition insists that you finish your glass in one gulp, and your glass is the size of an eggcup to boot, it's hard not to keep pouring rounds.

Soju bars such as this one have been slowly popping up around Oakland over the past couple of years, but they still mainly attract a young Korean-American clientele. To the uninformed eye, they look like just another restaurant in the city's expanding Koreatown. That they are -- in South Korea soju means downing food as well as shots. But the drinks are the real draw.

Soju is a clean, clear, almost refreshing spirit made from grains and sweet potato (see Kitchen Sink below). Although many readers have probably spotted it on Korean menus over the years and may even have ordered a bottle or two, the drinking culture of soju hasn't spread far beyond Korean-American circles. To non-Koreans, the spirit can seem a bit harsh to sip with a meal -- beer quenches the burn of the spicy cuisine more effectively. But curious non-Koreans are slowly infiltrating these small joints, and soju in turn is making its way into the local mainstream.

How is a soju bar different from a restaurant? After visits to several, I've noticed a few common characteristics. One: The bar-restaurants are divided into semiprivate booths perfect for parties of four to six, so you can drink yourself stupid while pretending no one else is noticing you. Two: Shiny Korean pop twitters and thumps loudly from the loudspeakers, keeping the feel of the place ultracasual and keeping out oldsters. Three: These soju bars don't maintain an exhaustive variety of rare brands of the spirit. Instead, if you turn to the drinks page of the menu, you'll see a list of fruit-flavored soju drinks served by the carafe or pitcher.

Soju Bang, on the edge of Chinatown, has another name in Korean. Calling the place "Soju Bang" is like naming a bar "local pub." Behind its forbidding smoked-glass windows hides a brightly lit room decorated in fluorescent green, peach, and silver. The partitions separating the tables are framed in metal pipe, and each is decorated with posters of Korean and Hollywood stars. A lone server mans the room, although he stays in the back, coming out only when you press the doorbell on the wall above your head to ring for service.

The owners have clearly designed their menu around drinks. The first page lists alcohol-and-food combinations, say, two beers with a plate of house special chicken or a bottle of soju and seafood stew. As we found when we tried to order a full meal, the restaurant isn't really set up for one -- the food doesn't come with rice or the little dishes of panchan (such as kimchi, little salads, and fish cake) that make up a proper meal.

Besides, nothing about the food was memorable except the portions. Our "appetizer" of seafood pancake, the last thing to arrive on the table, must have been the size of a large pizza before it was cut into three-inch squares. It was studded with green onions, jalapeño slices, and bits of octopus, but the overwhelming sensation was starch. The house special, crispy seasoned chicken, had become so crispy we had to gnaw it off the bone. A plate of sausage and vegetables was drenched in a sticky, sweet chile sauce. Perhaps my favorite dish was a seafood soup cooked at the table, which could have served three as a main course. The waiter brought out a gas burner and a wok filled with clear broth and skewers containing fish cake molded into different shapes. After we pot-simmered the slices and logs of fish cake for a few minutes, we dipped them into wasabi and soy sauce and sipped the simple stock, which had picked up some heat from the green peppers floating in it.

This isn't the first time in my life I've said this, but thank god for the booze. Small carafes of Soju Bang's fruit cocktails go for $11.99, pitchers for more than $30. Each of the fruit drinks -- and I tasted most of them for you, dear readers -- masked the ethanol fumes as well as the kick of the liquor. The lemon and pineapple clearly tasted of fresh juice, like the punch at a church potluck. As for the peach and aloe drinks, which were more obviously flavored with chemicals, you could sense the alcohol in the mix, but that didn't stop them from being so damned easy to drink. Only in the green-tea cocktail did the soju's power come through: Served in a stainless-steel teapot, the cocktail consisted of a bottle's worth of soju and a teabag, which slowly infused the spirit the longer it sat.

If Soju Bang is about as cozy as the Fortress of Solitude, then Sahn Korean Cuisine, at Telegraph Avenue and 63rd Street, merely pretends to be forbidding. From the outside, the small restaurant looks like a rundown Cal hangout. Inside, the attractive wine-colored walls, burnished-wood booths, and paper lanterns belie the fact that Sahn really does bring in a student clientele. The later the hour, the bigger the crowd.

The menu of barbecued meats, soups, pancakes, and sautéed dishes reads more like a traditional restaurant than Soju Bang's. Meals come with rice and a small but pungent set of panchan -- steamed greens, kimchi, japchae (stir-fried yam noodles), and bean sprouts. We watched many diners order stews, which are cheap, fiery, and filling, to cook at the table.

Barbecued meats aren't the restaurant's strongest suit. An order of kal bi (marinated beef shortribs), served sizzling on a cast-iron plate, came out tough. So did the octopus, sautéed in a garlicky chile-paste sauce that didn't inspire raves, either. The "rice pinkie," however, did. We felt a perverse thrill ordering it on the same day the finger-in-the-Wendy's-chili story hit the headlines. This sweet rice noodle, the length and thickness of a small finger, has the texture of a dense marshmallow -- nothing like the real thing, I swear. Sautéed in a sweet paprika-like paste, the noodles and accompanying vegetables quickly became addictive.

The waiter warned us that Sahn's tong dack might be dry. But the small whole chicken he brought us, rubbed with spices and deep-fried, was the best version I've tasted in a while. Keeping the bird intact gave it a shot at juiciness, with skin so crisp it almost sliced into our fingers. We dipped pieces of the moist meat -- even the breast -- into a mixture of salt and ground chiles, alternating it with cubes of pickled daikon.

Sahn Korean Cuisine makes its soju cocktails with real fruit, rather than artificial approximations. Some of its drinks, like the mango cocktail, are made with canned fruit nectar blended with alcohol and ice. The top layer of a two-tone strawberry yogurt cocktail, however, clearly contained nothing but pureed berries, ice, and booze. We couldn't taste a drop of alcohol in the thick, foamy yogurt layer on the bottom. Drink a couple of carafes, though, and you might end up with the post-prandial flush the Koreans call dal-ggi-ko, which translates, fittingly, as "strawberry nose."


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