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On the other end of the spectrum was a brassy, bold pork belly "salad" ($15.99) heaped on a two-foot-long platter: squares of steamed pork belly, meaty and yielding, tossed with green onions, pickled cabbage, and herbs in an opaque crimson dressing clanging with vinegar and throbbing with Im's sweet-spicy gochujang. Min kept worrying over whether her mother had made it too fiery; no, we gasped, and kept on eating.
Im's food can be as simple as the lightly cured mackerel ($12.99), pan-fried until the skin forms a deeply bronzed crust and the flesh turns impossibly buttery, and as refined as oxtails ($18.99) braised with red dates, chestnuts, and pine nuts in a soy-tinged broth. The beef was simmered so long we could use chopsticks to ferret every morsel out of the nooks of bone, and the date-sweet sauce was so rich and balanced we drizzled it over our rice bowls, unwilling to leave any in the pot.
I didn't enjoy all of it — for one, I found Im's yukhoe ($18.99), or beef tartare, too sweet. The mound of chilled, hand-chopped sirloin, crowned with an egg yolk, was tossed with sesame seeds, scallions, deeply toasted sesame oil, and a cloying amount of sugar. And the cod maeuntang ($16.99) was decent but anticlimactic; this thin, searingly spicy stew of cod, daikon, and chiles didn't show off the depth of her skill.
3815 Geary Blvd.
San Francisco, CA 94118
Region: Richmond (Inner)
3815 Geary (at Second Ave.), 668-8186. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. (sometimes later) Tue.-Sun. Reservations: only for large parties. Muni: 33, 38. Noise level: quiet.
The dish that did was the doenjang jjigae ($10.99), or soybean-paste stew, one of those everyday dishes families boil up for a quick dinner or serve on the side. Here it was worthy of my whole attention. A robust, winy, layered smell rolled off the murky soup, and chunks of squash, onion slices, and tofu cubes bobbed on its surface. Storebought doenjang tastes much like Japanese miso. But Im had made hers the traditional way: cooking the dried soybeans, then stirring in malt, adding a dollop of her 25-year-old master doenjang to ensure the right flavor, and setting jars of the paste aside to age for at least six months. The doenjang she's using in the stew right now, her daughter says, was started before To Hyang opened. You won't taste its like anywhere else in town.