Ed Debevic’s diner in Chicago is famed for the surly service, the motto being “Eat and Get Out.” Rudeness as a gimmick has strong appeal in a kitschy place where the waitresses look like they’s stub out a cigarette butt in your chili if smoking were still legal, but one strategy I’ve always loved is places that deliberately undersell the quality of their own dishes.
Fillmore Social Club advertises a signature item, the Jazzy Army Stew, as having “pretty good budae jjigae.” A direct translation of “army stew,” it consists of unabashedly SPAM-y sausage, green onions, kimchi, and plenty of ramen in an orange broth the color of government cheese. It’s messy and sticky and tasty, although arguably homogeneous. Although making it was allegedly punishable by death in South Korea for a time, if you pick out some kimchi, all you really taste is gochujang-heavy broth, salted from sausage that’s essentially a hot dog.
But why settle for just pretty good? (I don’t read the word “pretty” to be an understatement, as in “pretty damn good.”) It’s emblematic of a restaurant that’s torn between wanting to be elegant and wanting to be arch. Foxsister, another Americanized Korean restaurant in the Mission, faced a similar dilemma and followed a different path, gleefully serving kimchi nacho cheese and soju slushies so that no one would ever deem it too serious. By contrast, Fillmore Social Club — which seats practically 100 people and took over the long-dormant Gussie’s on Eddy Street, just west of Fillmore — is comparatively serious.
There are many dishes here worth trying, but the things that brought me and all my tablemates the most pleasure were the quote-unquote authentically Korean ones, as some others with a Japanese influence prioritized presentation over taste. For instance, a $13 spider roll had perfectly respectable crab over mashed potatoes tinted the color of wasabi from the inclusion of avocados, but it wasn’t popping with much intensity. A salmon tataki salad ($12) with radish and beet had a thatch roof of seaweed but also little in the way of flavor to recommend it over the thousand other salmon preparations of this ilk we’ve all had by now.
The raw, fermented octopus in the tako wasabi ($9) was more gluey than anything. But tried-and-true classics like half-and-half chicken (fried thigh chunks slathered with gochujang sauce and soy sauce, in equal proportion, $18) were much better, with that beguiling, ever-so-slightly gummy texture. They were also the rare item that wasn’t covered in green onion. Gimmari, or deep-fried seaweed spring rolls (five for $9), had a delicate crunch and a warm, gooey interior that makes them a must.
I was very much into the heavily spiced ground ribeye in the bulgogi ssam (three for $9), which hovered halfway between lettuce cups and proper tacos, and pleasantly bewildered by the $16 so-ya. It’s centered on Kurobuta — or Berkshire pig — sausage, which means it’s the porcine equivalent of Kobe beef, yet it’s smothered in mozzarella and vegetables that make it look like a supreme pizza without crust. (It looks like Pizza the Hutt from Spaceballs, to get right to the point.) But it’s delicious and unpretentious, with excellent sausage, and the crispy cheese is well worth scraping off the skillet.
A kimchi jun ($15), a Korean version of the Japanese okonomiyaki pancakes that are doing an amazing job and are being recognized more and more, I notice, was layered with Kewpie mayo and a thick layer of bonito flakes. Overkill, maybe, but it’s one of those things a table will start getting territorial over — and you can add bacon for $3. (Do it.)
A spicy, $20 seafood preparation the house calls Trident bokkeum — because that instrument is what Neptune holds in his hand? — was very good as well, full of mussels and comically long strips of squid. It’s like a broth-less stew, but maybe a better way to describe it is a stew that’s served on a skillet so that all the broth boils away, leaving sauce-flecked mussel shells. By far, my favorite dish was the moe galbi ($25), a dark horse short-rib dish cut L.A.-style — which is to say, across the bones, a quarter-inch thick — with another scoop of green mashed potato that works even better in this context. Perfectly flavored and perfectly cooked, they were as fun as lamb lollipops but with a deep piquancy, and the acid from the companion chunks of pineapple brought out the smoke.
There’s one further sticking point. Although the fried chicken comes with a bowl of cubed daikon, there are no complimentary banchan — or much banchan of any kind, and rice costs $2.50 for a serving, too. (Foxsister, for its part, has little bowls of pickled bits you may order a la carte.) In terms of drinks, I stuck to sake and beer — Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA was the better choice — through most of these dinners, although if you’re a soju-cocktail fan, you have plenty to choose from, including Icing and Kooksonondang Makgaoli.
Lots of tile and an enormous mural of scary-cute anthropomorphic characters — from cycloptic monsters to street bunnies — make for an original-but-not-insufferably-hip vibe, and there’s an entire private dining room besides. Service is warm and very endearing, with multiple people routinely coming by to check in and solicit feedback on this or that. (It’s the polar opposite of Ed Debevic’s, in fact.) Overall, Fillmore Social Club is simultaneously goofy and ambitious, self-effacing and tongue-in-cheek. Like anything that takes its cues from multiple coordinates on the globe, it’s best to go with an open mind and not fume if any given dish or two falls flat. Be social, basically.
Fillmore Social Club, 1521 Eddy St., 415-829-3750, no website.