Birthday Weekend Pt. 2: To Hyang Korean Restaurant

After our adventures in the Marina District, we ended the night in Inner Richmond. I chose where we went for lunch, so my dad picked where we ate dinner: To Hyang Korean Restaurant. I love Korean food, but I have to admit...there was some skepticism over To Hyang's 3-star rating on Yelp, especially with much more popular Korean joints in the same area.

"It's good. Trust me," my dad proclaimed.

And so I did...with the help of a little research. Chris Cosentino, chef-partner at Noe Valley's Incanto, says that he loves "off-the-beaten-path spots like To Hyang for great Korean food." Cosentino even took Anthony Bourdain here for an episode of The Layover, calling their house-infused soju "super rocket fuel". (Favorite quote of the segment: "Just when you thought pork belly was over...Nooo, pork belly is never over.")

Andrew Zimmern, of Bourdain's old Travel Channel brethren, also visited chef-owner Hwa-Soon Im and her small restaurant. He declared To Hyang as "Korean grandmother food heaven". (Okay, at this point, my skepticism was pretty much gone.)

So what finally tipped the scale for me, pushing me towards To Hyang instead of away? Ravi Kapur, who is from Oahu, grew up on Korean food, and went to culinary school in San Francisco, appeared on Munchies. He's the former executive chef at SoMa's Prospect and now runs a traveling, Hawaiian-inspired pop-up called Liholiho Yacht Club. In this webisode, I watched him bring his sous-chefs to To Hyang after closing up their restaurant for the night. Everything about their meal, from the 30-year-old ginseng wine to the spicy pork ribs, looked awesome. They even went to the back to meet Hwa-Soon Im, who makes all of her condiments/pickles/sauces/etc. in-house and cooks everything herself to order, and her daughter showed Kapur the patio where Im has her own herb garden and the clay pots of soy bean paste that she ferments herself. Fun fact? The "master" paste that Im uses to make her doenjang was started way before To Hyang ever opened.

This is not your typical Korean BBQ joint. There are the well-known dishes, like kalbi short ribs and mandoo dumplings, but you also get authentic Korean, "home-cooked" food. There are dishes that only a skilled and expert hand could make just right, that Hwa-Soon Im does very well. When my family and I arrived at To Hyang, I was ready for a good meal. We ended up having a great dinner, and I'll always remember to come back here when I've craving traditional Korean cuisine.

When we entered the restaurant--which probably only seats about 30 or so guests maximum--our party of 8 fit into the two tables next to the window. It's a cozy place, with a narrow white door as its only entrance from Geary Blvd.

To start our meal, we were given the usual assortment of side dishes, or "banchan". There was a little bit of everything, with the braised greens and cucumber kimchi being my favorite. The tiny dried fish, though, was a new one for me. We were also given pots of hot roasted-barley tea, a soothing refuge from the nighttime San Francisco chill.

After looking over the menu, I immediately ordered the bibimbap. This beautifully composed rice bowl included a variety of sauteed and pickled vegetables, beef that had been thinly-sliced and marinated, and one of my all-time favorite foods...a fried egg. While I probably could've ordered something else, I could not resist the fried egg. (Seriously, put a fried egg on anything...soup, rice, sandwiches...and I will eat it.) Ordering bibimbap also gave me a chance to try the gochujang, a sweet and spicy sauce made from red chilis and fermented soy beans. (If you love Sriracha, you will love gochujang.)

To eat this, you're supposed to mix everything together...drizzle on as much gochujang as you like...and mix it up some more. You get a little bit of rice, vegetable, and sliced beef in every flavorful bite. Keep in mind, I just had a pretty hefty rice bowl for lunch at Pacific Catch, and this bibimbap was a pretty good-sized portion as well...Well, I finished the whole thing.

As for the rest of the table, my Uncle Romy ordered the Jogi Maeuntang. (I sincerely hope that I'm not butchering the spellings of these dishes...) The Jogi Maeuntang is a spicy fish stew made with tofu and radish. The soup comes out in a pot, large enough to be shared easily, and is boiled tableside. My Auntie Cathy had the braised oxtail with dates, chestnuts, hard-boiled eggs, and daikon radish. (Ravi Kapur said this was one of his favorite dishes.) While the combination of ingredients may sound a little odd, it turned out to be a nice balance of sweet and salty. The oxtail was also incredibly tender. My cousin Miko also had the Korean classic, bulgogi. It was served sizzling on a stone platter.

My favorite dish of the night, which I sadly did not even get to take a picture of, was the...Sauteed. Spicy. Pork. Belly. (Pork belly is never over!!!) The meat was tender, and the whole dish got a spicy tang from the kimchi. It also had a touch of sweetness in the sauce!

To wash all of this food down, To Hyang serves a variety of Korean beers, like Hite and OB. Their house-infused soju also comes in many flavors. The available flavors, such as lychee and cucumber, are listed on a sign on the wall.

With full bellies and the best of moods, my family and I left To Hyang completely satisfied. It was one one of those moving-so-slow-but-laughing-so-loud walks back to the car. It was an absolute perfect way to cap off my birthday weekend and day in San Francisco!