As far as I know, the only Korean food we had in the Mission before Sam Ho Won was at a convenience store on 16th Street, KD Market, which, last time I checked, had closed their kitchen during the pandemic, and Smile BBQ on 22nd Street, the divey little café that maybe offers a couple of Korean dishes, along with burgers and breakfast?
And now, we get this! Sam Ho Won: The love child of Chef Corey Lee and Executive Chef Jeong-In Hwang (both of Benu fame), which they’re billing as “casual” Korean BBQ, but which we found a beautifully serene space, bringing updated Korean food using pristine ingredients, with touches of fine dining, sans the stuffiness.
Sam Ho Won is booked to the gills 29 days in advance by reservation. BUT, you can try showing up right at 5 pm when they open, and possibly get seated as a walk-in, which is what we did on a Sunday evening when we were able to sit relatively far apart from other diners. Although I expect that phenomenon to end as their popularity continues to grow.
The former Blowfish space at 2170 Bryant St. has been gussied up, but with a minimalist vibe, industrial and elegant, with tones of light and darker wood. There’s a low counter where you can eat and watch the grilling action (all BBQ dishes are grilled in the kitchen, except for in the private dining room on the side, which is equipped with a smaller grill), as well as booths and small tables . The smells emanating from the kitchen are intoxicating, with lychee wood keeping the home fires burning.
Along with a steaming earthenware pot of barley tea, complimentary banchan are brought to the table upon seating: spicy daikon kimchee; a spectacular soft tofu dish topped with soy and chili sauce; and a stand-out slaw of finely sliced, par-cooked potatoes, carrots and minari, a popular Korean green with a slightly peppery taste, a cross between celery and watercress. I could have eaten a whole bowl of just this vinegary / sesame oil slaw, and our server offered me more when I told him it was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
Next, galbi mandu. This dish looks almost like a pancake when it arrives at the table with its delicately connected dumplings. The mandu, while crispy on top, was incredibly tender inside, the ground short rib beef lightly spiced, with a mustard sauce accentuating but not overwhelming it; a homey, savory combination.
Next, we got the much-talked-about double-cut galbi ribs.
Heaven on a grill. The smoky meat, again, was tender yet chewy, with a good fat-to-flesh ratio, and this was plenty to share. Our server suggested we order the side of ssam, which you absolutely must do. Sure, in most Korean restaurants, ssam comes with your BBQ, but here it is extra and it is worth it.
Ssam simply means “wrapped.” Here, you get a basket full of vibrantly fresh lettuces, chrysanthemum, and giant perilla leaves to wrap the grilled meat. The bevy of house-made sauces are not to be missed: soy with grilled onion and jalapeno, a cilantro chili sauce, doenjang (which I understand has undergone a five-year fermentation), and a red chili sauce that packs quite a bite- y punch. All are perfect accompaniments to ensure each crisp bite of your wrap is distinct from the last. We also ordered a side of steamed rice.
We finished up with the kimchi jjigae posole.
Kimchi jjigae is a homey dish, as is its Mexican counterpart, posole, and I can see where the inspiration came from: these are both dishes made in the home, to comfort and warm. While it was quite tasty, it didn’t wow us as much as the rest of the meal did. The corny flavor of the hominy itself got a bit lost in the pungent kimchi broth – which, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change for anything – and we found only scant bits of pork in our bowl. Once I got all the optional toppings into the hot broth, especially the cilantro, I sensed more of the Latin flavor I was craving, but it was missing the dried oregano that often sides posole. Again, good, but don’t expect a true fusion.
Sam Ho Won seems to be aiming for a marriage of home cooking and Korean barbecue, a fine balance to work toward, especially when you share a home with Chefs Hwang and Lee, where you can benefit from their exquisite, painstaking attention to detail and technique . What’s clear, however, is that taste is their ultimate goal.
I’d go back for the short ribs again, but there are SO MANY dishes on this menu I’d love to try: savory egg souffle, the blood sausage and green onion pancake, the grilled beef tongue, the sweet corn, honey butter and chili, the five-year doenjang and clam jiigae … the hits just keep on coming.
Sam Ho Won also serves a house menu, or prix fixe, which looks like a lot of food. I’d try that with a group. For beverages, they offer soju, sake, and cocktails made with both, plus beer, wine, sparkling, and Korean liqueurs.
Something for everyone, in a lovely setting, bringing one of my favorite cuisines to the Mission!
Sam Ho Won
2170 Bryant St.
San Francisco, CA 94110