2017 began with modern Indian as the cuisine likeliest to reshape San Francisco’s restaurant landscape, and it looks as though the years will close out with Korean food ascendant. Babu Ji, August 1 Five, and Rooh all made their marks — and the latter two seem as though they have serious staying power — but now the center of gravity has moved to Namu Stonepot, FoxSister, and now Tenderloin Korean spot Barnzu. Three makes a trend, as they say, but it’s easier to hunt for trends when these sorts of places seem to open in convenient near-trios.
Now that whatever passes for summer has abruptly ended, we can throw ourselves into rib-sticking autumnal food with zeal. Barnzu is a great place do it, and even when the flavors veer in strange directions — a too-sugary beef dish, for instance — they often do so with a certain quizzical bravura. Who cares if it “fits”?
This is not the primary criterion by which I judge a restaurant experience, but I couldn’t escape a feeling that this smallish Geary Street outpost is neither betwixt nor between. There are fun oddities on the menu — corn cheese, a wild mushroom pasta — but beyond counting as individual curios, they don’t add up to much of a concept except in the vaguest “fusion” way. Nor are there many trappings of a quote-unquote traditional Korean restaurant, like hot tea or complimentary pickles. If a restaurant can be shy, then Barnzu is a little shy. Beyond the food, it has maybe a thimbleful of personality.
The interior is truly forgettable: exposed brick, a semi-open kitchen, and plenty of neutrals. If you hunger to make your friends jealous of what you ate by posting to social media more than you hunger for food itself, you’re probably out of luck. Barnzu’s lighting is shadowy, and we’re about to run out of dinner-hour daylight for the next few months.
So you’ll just have to not be a shallow fame-whore, I guess. Instead, tear into the Korean fried chicken ($19 for five pieces). Why, apart from the fact that the increasingly ubiquitous KFC is almost always wonderful? It’s because Barnzu is the stepchild of much-missed food truck Kokio Republic, which wrapped up a three-year run during which I probably ate from it more than from any other mobile eatery in San Francisco, walking back to my desk with a box of it as if I had just couriered it across the ocean. (Another partner owns Tamashisoul Sushi Bar and Sushi Hon, in the Marina and the Mission, respectively.)
In this incarnation, the chicken remains, hands down, some of the juiciest, tenderest fried chicken out there, and the messy, extremely dense gochujang sauce is destined to be licked from under your fingernails. The radish and the almond add a few grace notes, but the real feat is how it stays crispy under the weight of everything, although on a separate visit that wasn’t quite the case. Either way, it’s an eat-it-again-for-the-first-time sensation.
The trifecta of non-chicken favorites — bibimbop, seafood jeon, and a stonepot rice bowl — were all excellent as well. However satisfying, the bibimbop ($13) was the most ordinary of the three by default, balanced and savory without shouting. It’d be a better lunch, probably. The seafood jeon, or pancake ($16), came with generous quantities of shrimp and even more onion. Caramelized just so, it had been on the burner exactly long enough, with an appealingly oily quality that suggested a top-notch quiche.
Although the stonepot ($17) essentially builds on the bibimbop’s foundation — daikon, shiitakes, bellflower root; check, check, check — it grows in depth and size to become a full-on entree. It nearly defeated me, and I’m more than happy to perspire over a sizzling vessel until my glasses steam up in public if it means I get to eat crispy rice like that. Egg and kimchi make this thing come alive, although the one drawback is that beef is the only option. (I like how Namu Stonepot gives you alternates: chicken and poke — although it should be noted that Barnzu’s full-service version clocks in at a couple bucks cheaper than its fast-casual rival.)
I have to admit I was a little confused by the dak-galbi ($23). Rare is the chicken dish to which mozzerella adds almost nothing, but here it is, and if you want to experiment, I would take the risk of coming unmoored from the gochujang, which begins to feel repetitive since it’s all over the menu. It’s the dish that embodied Barnzu’s occasional neither-here-nor-there vibe, although the corn cheese ($9) and wild mushroom pasta ($14) redeemed it. The former is a sort of elote-off-the-cob, which probably could have been a genuine stunner if it had been baked just enough for a crust to form. Everyone liked it plenty, though. And the wild mushroom pasta — nothing more than fettucine alfredo with cremini, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, and shiitakes — was great. Why it’s on this menu, I’m not sure, but I don’t really care because I don’t think I’ve eaten fettuccine alfredo in a very long time. It’s practically a crowd-pleaser on the scale of fried chicken.
The biggest disappointment was the galbi jjim ($37), a meat-and-potatoes preparation with short rib, broccoli, and carrots that desperately needed more heft and less sucrose. If there was red wine in there, I couldn’t tell, because all you really got were brown sugar and molasses notes over the occasional vegetable. I found myself wishing there were rice cakes in it, too. And for being slow-cooked, the beef was only moderately tender, too, so for that price, I’d give it a wide berth.
So Barnzu is a bit wobbly toward the top end, but it’s anchored firmly in well-executed Korean classics and its food-truck origins. Although there were several pleasant surprises elsewhere, if you stick to the dishes that have already become popularized stateside, you’ll leave happy.
Barnzu, 711 Geary St., 415-525-4985 or barnzu.com