I have one rule when spontaneously choosing a restaurant to dine in: the smaller the menu the better the food. I am guaranteed to return to a restaurant that just gives me food instead of a menu, because the food is going to be marvelous. However, the fewer choices I have on a menu the more confident I feel that the food will be good.
This rule is a good one to follow for a couple of logical reasons. Chief among them is the fact that when restaurants are focused on only a few items the cooks are more focused on making a few dishes expertly as opposed to a maintaining a large menu that doesn’t allow artisan-like attention to their craft.
Secondly, restaurants that maintain a small menu are also more likely to be independent or family owned restaurants with unique or special recipes. Mom’s cooking is always better than anything else after all.
Finally, and this may just be a personal preference, but small, family owned restaurants just have a better atmosphere to them. Even the really busy, and popular spots always have their own unique feel to them. But, if the restaurant is off the beaten track, there is always the chance of direct connection with the owners, and a chance to learn a thing or two about the food, the culture or even just South Korea in general. This element is something that you don’t always get when you eat a restaurant franchise.
I developed this rule after the rule I used back in the United States failed me. Back home I went with the crowds. If the restaurant was crowded there was a pretty good chance the food would be good. But, this rule doesn’t always work in Korea, due to the power of social media and pop culture. If a restaurant makes it on television via drama, variety show or documentary the restaurant tends to increase in popularity, but it doesn’t always mean that the food is unique or better than another restaurant. It more likely that members of 무한도전 (Infinite Challenge) ate there recently or it an internet celeb gave a particular restaurant a shout-out during a live stream. So, I had to come up with a new system.
Korean food is getting increasingly popular in the United States, particularly in major metropolitan areas. Despite the food in American-Korean restaurants providing the same menu mainstays you would see in any city in South Korea, the food is nearly twice as expensive and geared more towards a fine dining experience. For example 강호동 백정 (Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong) in Gangnam sells 삼겹살 (pork belly) for 11,900 won. However if you go the same restaurant chain in Los Angeles—where it is rated one of the better Korean restaurants in the city—that same dish costs around 22,000 won.
Since I am home for the first time in a long time, I wanted to show my family what it was that I have been eating for the past six years. It was time to incorporate my rule. I looked for all the Korean restaurants I could (taking suggestions for the best in the city from several places). San Francisco is spoiled for choice when it comes to food and so there was no general consensus on which restaurant was best. But one name that popped up more often than any other was “Han Il Kwan” what looked to be family restaurant out in the Richmond district of the city. But, this restaurant like all of the others I saw broke my rule for picking a Korean restaurant. They served everything! Pork, beef, chicken, fish, octopus, and ddeokbokki were all on offer along with around a dozen different types of soup and so much more. I later realized that they were a restaurant that catered to Korean tour groups, which also gave me hope for the food. Though my family couldn’t tell, the quality of the food was not equal to the food served in Korea—not that I expected it to be—even though it was twice as expensive. The food was either bland or had way too much seasoning. The restaurant had the look, but the taste just missed the mark, and if this was considered one of the best Korean restaurants in the city, then San Francisco is missing out. If nothing else it was a nice introduction to Korean food.
I don’t doubt in my mind that Korean food gets altered slightly for American patrons, to make it more palatable to American tastes. Even though the food was undoubtedly authentic, I wish I could have taken my family to a restaurant that really reminded me of the South Korean experience. So take it from me, no matter where you are in the world, when looking for Korean food choose places with small menus, it is less likely that you will be disappointed.