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Most people, if they are at all familiar with Korean cooking, know two things: Meals are accompanied by an array of small dishes containing various pickled and fermented foods, known as banchan or panchan; and that the main course they surround is often thinly sliced, broiled meat.
San Francisco, CA 94118
Region: Richmond (Inner)
Muguboka, a modest restaurant in the Inner Richmond, calls itself a "Korean B.B.Q.," and it indeed serves staples such as kalbi or galbi (short ribs) and bulgogi (marinated beef). But in addition to galbi (here spelled gal bee) and bulgogi (bul go gee), there are many more dishes to explore, including subtly flavored, spicy stews seasoned with the hot red chile paste known as gochujang, and soups flavored with fermented soybean paste (doenjang; dhan jang at Muguboka).
At lunch on a weekday, the bargain-priced specials (all under $10) served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. proved irresistible — especially since at dinner, the same dishes cost $10.95 to $18.95. Bul go gee ($7.95) was served simply: a towering heap of broiled slices of beef that had been marinated in sweetened, garlicky soy sauce, served next to an equally impressive amount of steamed rice. In some Korean barbecue houses, especially those that feature small table grills where you can cook your own meat, fresh vegetables and lettuce are included for wrapping the meats. That's not so here, but they weren't missed. We were distracted by the nine-dish banchan, which included familiar items, such as two kinds of kimchee, sesame-oil-slicked bean-sprouts, and crunchy pickled daikon. But there were also unusual elements, such as broccoli, lightly cooked potato strands, and thinly cut, smooth-textured sausage paired with silky-textured long-cooked vegetables. We loved the acid bite of the bright pickles against the sweet meat and the bland rice.
We also feasted on a stew called herk-yumso jungol, described as specially boiled black goat with vegetables ($39.95 large, $19.95 small — the small was enough for two, with leftovers), which came to the table bubbling madly in a stone pot. The chile paste had dyed the broth — full of greens, sprouts, and chunks of the mildly funky goat — bright red. We spooned it onto rice and reveled in its flavor and revivifying heat.
Those two dishes would have been more than enough, but Muguboka's servers also brought us two more on the house, which seems to be customary here. The first treat was a pan-fried seafood pancake (hae mool pa jun), which had just enough eggy dough to hold together shrimp, chunks of boiled squid, and chopped green onions. We were then given two pieces of soft tofu in a soy-based sauce; the custardy texture was a nice foil for the heat of the goat broth. Friends who've dined at Muguboka on other occasions have reported gift plates of mandu (pan-fried dumplings stuffed with pork forcemeat).
There are no desserts on the 80-item menu (a number of dishes are helpfully photographed), but one is invariably brought to you, free, to signal the end of the meal: a cold, sweet cinnamon broth, in which float a few pine nuts.
When we returned to Muguboka on a cold and rainy night, its corner windows glowed warmly, beckoning us inside to sit at its simple tables and enjoy its sophisticated food. The decor is negligible — white walls, white-topped tables with wooden legs, and a refrigerated case holding beverages and topped by a television, next to a doorway through which the kitchen can be glimpsed. A row of potted plants against the back wall lends a homey air. At night, the banchan offerings are increased to 14, augmented by an almond jelly, pickled green beans, crumbled anchovies, and chunks of a vegetarian pancake similar to the seafood one.
We shared a massive platter of duk boki ($10.95), spongy, fat rice cakes looking like pale sausages, cooked with greens, zucchini, and carrots in a thickish sauce heated with red chile paste. When we inquired about gul bosam ($22.95), mysteriously described on the menu as "oyster seasoned cottages & spicy vegetable on side," we were told it contained pork, so the nonmeat-eater among us substituted haemool kal guksu ($11.95), a mild-flavored bean-broth–based soup full of irregular, long hand-made noodles, shrimp, and squid (though we didn't detect the clams mentioned on the menu).
Our table was already covered with dishes, but we managed to find room (both on the table and in our bellies) for the gift seafood pancake and another generous serving of nak-ji boke-um ($15.95), sautéed octopus cooked with crunchy vegetables and greens in another spicy sauce. That made three red-sauced dishes over two meals, each with its own distinct flavor and texture. The one dish we tried that was, surprisingly, not a complete hit was marinated fried chicken, kkan poong ki ($11.95), a heap of sticky-sauced wings sprinkled with sesame seeds that seemed rather ordinary next to the more intriguing soups, noodles, and stews.
Over the course of two meals, we'd only been able to dip into what Muguboka offers. Hiding in plain sight among the gal bee and bul go gee are other interesting broiled meats — different beef cuts such as the unmarinated ju mool ruk, sang gal bee, and chadol gui — as well as steamed and broiled fish, such as codfish, mackerel, and croaker, which will have to wait for subsequent visits. Muguboka's modest facade hides a wealth of exciting cooking.
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