Sam Oh Joung, by reputation one of the best Korean restaurants in the greater Seattle area, is located in the nearly hidden appendix of a Lynnwood shopping complex anchored by a QFC supermarket. A McDonald’s restaurant of daring design — the metal siding and bold angles suggest modern, industrial chic — is posted at one corner of the giant, exurban block.
This is the kind of newer strip mall that looks less austere than its maligned ancestors but functions the same. Knitted together with all its siblings up and down Highway 99, these shopping centers form the brand-scape by which many of us know middle American life. This could be the outer band of almost any, prosperous American city. Here is a giant Fred Meyer, a gleaming Volvo dealership, and a Subway (the sandwich, not the train) every two miles. And here is where you will find what passes for Koreatown.
In Seattle, Koreatown is both invisible and always there, scattered in the outer extremes of King County and the southern flank of Snohomish County, and to a lesser extent, the Eastside. The most mediocre Korean restaurants are in Seattle; the best are in places like Federal Way, Shoreline, Lynnwood, Mukilteo. Korean immigrants are an atomized bunch and have for years settled in the outskirts rather than in the core of cities, perhaps because the typical Korean immigrant fits the suburban demographic: generally educated, churchgoing, conservative, business-minded, and fiscally determined.
As you drive north on Highway 99 from Shoreline, clumps of signs written in the Korean alphabet, Hangul, appear with increasing frequency, designating not just restaurants and grocery stores, but banks, insurance brokers, golf shops, chiropractors, spas, all the trappings of a comfortable, Korean-American life.
At this particular junction of Pacific Highway and 176th Street Southwest, you will find Domino’s pizza, Chase bank, Blockbuster video, and next to it, Sam Oh Joung, whose sign calls itself a Korean tofu house. Tofu is not the predominant food ingredient on the menu, just one of many, but it serves as a way of distinguishing itself from a Korean barbecue restaurant, the type of cooking most associated with Korean food in America.
Sam Oh Joung is owned by the Kims, husband Kun-Young and wife Paek-Sun, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1988 and started a commercial cleaning business. The Kims, who still barely speak any English, are from the southern state of Jeollabuk-do. Paek-Sun learned to love cooking from her grandmother and was formally trained at a school in the port city of Pusan. It was always the Kims’ dream to operate a restaurant, and in 2007, with enough savings to act on it, they opened Sam Oh Joung, designing it themselves and even performing some of the carpentry.
It is a mom-and-pop business, but no hole in the wall, with large, plate windows; elegant, stone veneer; and dark, wood floors. There are subtle Korean touches: A flat-panel TV hangs at one end of the room; an automatic coffee and tea machine is stationed near the entrance. Kun-Young does the shopping, Paek-Sun does most of the cooking, preparing the larger dishes, while a family friend, Myung-Sun Choi, makes the smaller dishes. The Kims’ nephew Tony Chang is the pro-bono night manager, coming in after finishing his accounting classes at a local trade school. The family hired four Korean-born waitresses and a prep cook from Central America who also washes dishes.
At Sam Oh Joung — the name is spelled differently on its menus, "Sam Oh Jung" — the emphasis is on stews of both individual and group-sized portions, salted and grilled fish, braised meat, cold noodles, beef soups, and a few cold dishes that defy category, the house specialty of pickled crab and a dish called bo sam, a staple of Korean restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, but less common here.
As a concept, sam (sometimes spelled ssam) refers to anything wrapped. (Think of it as a Korean burrito.) Bo sam is the standard incarnation, thick, succulent slices of steamed pork belly (the same cut of pig used to make bacon), raw oysters, and shreds of spicy, pickled radish wrapped in a parboiled leaf of Chinese cabbage. Like the pickled crab, bo sam is a dish intended for two or more people.
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