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'ês 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'ês 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'ê 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'ê 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.
Larger groups can order several versions of the spicy, communal stews called jung gol, prepared in the kitchen but cooked at the table in a giant pot with ingredients like goat, octopus, beef, Asian greens, and mushrooms. Once consumed, protocol demands that rice be added to the puddle of broth left in the bottom of the pot. The broth, a distillation of all the ingredients cooked in it, flavors the rice and makes for a satisfying end to the feast.
Expectedly, the restaurant also serves bibimbap, a sort of Korean chef'ês salad, rice topped with cold, marinated vegetables and ground beef, mixed together with a spicy sauce made from fermented beans. It is a dish as dear to the hearts of Koreans as the hamburger is to Americans. All Korean restaurants serve bibimbap, but Sam Oh Joung serves dolsot bibimbap, a more evolved version served in a sizzling hot stone bowl, and one favored during the winter months.
The true measure of a Korean restaurant is its banchan, the various side dishes that accompany every meal, whether you are one person or 12. Kimchi, the country'ês national dish, is always included. Typically, banchan includes pickled and marinated vegetables, fish cake, yam cake, dried and marinated anchovies, fermented beans, even potato salad, borrowed from Americans during the Korean War and adapted to Korean tastes. (It is more savory and slightly sweet, missing the tang of western versions.) The type of banchan served at Sam Oh Joung changes every day.
'êNo other restaurant gives you free appetizers,'ê said Chang, referring to the banchan. 'êWe give customers more than 10 side dishes. That'ês what makes Korean food special.'ê
Korean food is unique even among other Asian cuisines. Its DNA, like all Asian food, comes from China. Some techniques are similar to those found in Japanese cooking. (Jung gol is similar to sukiyaki for instance, and both cultures embrace grilled fish.) But Korean food is remarkably different from any other from Asia, more intensely flavored, and possessing a musk that can be intimidating to Western senses.
Earthy, pungent, and robust, the food at Sam Oh Joung goes beyond simple sweet or sour or hot or savory. Fermentation, while found in all kinds of food, is central to Korean cuisine, the prime example being kimchi, a dish to which Koreans have a deep, emotional attachment. A meal, for a Korean, can be no more than rice and kimchi. Usually cabbage, sometimes radish or cucumber, kimchi is fermented for weeks, sometimes months, with red pepper, garlic, ginger, scallions, shrimp, and oysters.
Miso, or fermented soybean paste, also is a ubiquitous part of Korean stews, soups, and condiments. Koreans have several varieties, all of them much more hearty than the Japanese type most Americans are familiar with. One of the stews on Sam Oh Joung'ês menu, chung gook jang chigae, is porridge-thick with miso, made on the premises with ingredients personally carried by the Kims from Korea. Simple but deeply flavored, it tastes like 100 years of triumph and despair.
Korean winters are notoriously harsh, and kimchi was intended to put vegetables on the table during those months when nothing will grow. If food is a reflection of a people'ês history, experience, and surroundings, it is easy to see the sum of Korea on its menus. Korea is a rugged, mountainous country. If its peaks and ranges could be pulled flat, the country might be as big as China. It is pinched between powerful neighbors, Russia, China, and Japan. Invaded, occupied, and now divided over the centuries, Korea somehow managed to maintain its cultural independence. For that reason, Koreans have sometimes been referred to as the Irish or the Jews of Asia.
Chinese food is refined and elaborate; Japanese food is elemental, delicate; Thai cooking speaks of warmth and bounty; Korean food is defiant, passionate, simple in construction but complex in flavor. For that reason, Korean food might not ever be as popular in the U.S. as other Asian cuisines. It doesn'êt help that Korean restaurants, generally, do not cater to new audiences. There are no options of two stars or four stars, no watering down or sweetening up of sauces, no addition of familiar ingredients to traditional dishes. Korean restaurants cater to Koreans who work in the neighborhood. They welcome newcomers, but respectfully require that you love the food the way it is.
Even the names of Korean restaurants discourage those not in the know. Chinese restaurants employ catchy, associative words like garden and dragon and jade. Thai restaurants go with lotus or Siam or orchid. The names of Korean restaurants contain no easy cues and are difficult to remember, verbal camouflage in a forest of Moon Palace Gardens, and Lotus Blossom Leafs.
Sam Oh Joung sounds like a great name for a baseball player. That is how I remember it.
If you go: Sam Oh Joung is at 17425 Highway 99, Lynnwood: Open daily 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. 425-745-3535.