Recently, someone asked me how often I cook, I said not often at all, I spend most of my time at school trying either to speak some foreign language or to tell the computer to understand my version of its language. I cook maybe once a week, very simple stuff, like boiled bok choy. He then questioned the credibility of my taste. “Can you taste as well as someone who cooks a lot?” I believe so. I might not have the knowledge to make the dish or to fix its shortcomings, but fermenting the grapes doesn’t help an oenophile judge his wine. However, that got me thinking about what I would do if I had time to cook. I would like to work in a restaurant kitchen. It’s okay if I have to peel shrimps all day, I simply would like to look and learn from the inside. I’ve even picked out the place I want to work at: To Hyang.
Because I’d like to learn how to make kimchi, soybean paste, pickled bellflower, fried dry anchovies, and maybe infused soju from a Korean lady. Of course there are recipes online, which I tend not to read because they are too precise. But I’ve just heard too many good things about To Hyang, including Chef Im’s selection of various aging sauces, pickles, and garden plants, that I want to infiltrate her kitchen.
Not to mention her so gori chim (소 꼬리 찜, $18.99). Braised oxtail in a sweet, thick sauce with hard boiled eggs. Magnificent hard boiled eggs. The egg white got just the right springiness after the braise. The yolk wakes up memories of my mom’s thit kho trung for the Lunar New Year feasts. Though no doubt loved by everyone, this simple combination is not served often enough in restaurants, and when it is served, the portion is not enough for the whole table, especially a table with me. I can never have enough eggs simmered in a braised meat sauce.
The rest of To Hyang’s fixed menu is fairly standard of a Korean establishment, with kimchi jeon, soondubu, and bibim nangmyeon among others. A few recommendations from Chef Im’s daughter are the hand pulled noodle soup kalguksu, which we did not get, and the pork belly kimchi salad samgyeopsal muchim (삼겹살 무침, $15.99), which we did get.
It looks like a fiery truck load of paprika accidentally got dumped onto the plate, but it’s served cold, the pork belly is succulent as always, and the heat dissipates as quickly as it hits. It’s refreshing like mint ice cream.
On the left wall hangs a white board, hand scribbled, of the special du jour, the soju cocktails, and a list of house infused sojus ($15 each bottle). For the processed meat lovers (me), there’s budae jjigae (부대찌개), hot dogs and spam in a gochujang and kimchi soup. For the fish egg lovers (me), there’s al jjigae (알 찌게), a hefty lot of pollock roe in a mildly spiced stock with tofu ($15.99). For the fish lovers (not quite me), there’s kalchi jorim (갈치 조림), meaty beltfish and potato simmered in ganjang, garnished with bellpepper and white sesame ($15.99). With bones. So make sure to try this in the presence of an Asian if using chopsticks to pull off the flesh without disrupting the 200-bone fish skeleton is not your forte. I’m a useless exception of my race though, I still get bones dig in my throat even now.
So I prefer to go with the big bones, like chicken. At To Hyang, I first learned the proper (Korean) way to eat the chicken in the samgyetang (삼계탕, $22.99): put salt and pepper onto a plate (or any available surface), and dip a piece of chicken into it.
Although my dining company was more impressed with the spicy bubbling kamjatang (감자탕, pork rib stew with potato and greens, $13.99), and although the lack of the sam (ginseng) flavor in the samgyetang did leave me a bit unsatisfied, in hindsight that porridge-like soup, plain and fatty, is a perfect soothing finish to recover the tastebuds, which were numbed from too much chili powder. It also reflects just the character of To Hyang itself. In today’s tumultuous gastrosphere where everything is mixed with everything else and everyone is making a big deal about this or that food movement, this little Inner Richmond restaurant keeps a modest profile, no website, no long line in front (yet), a recent picture of our lady with Anthony Bourdain on the wall. Chef Im keeps her kitchen in order by herself, making food for the patrons the same way she’s made for her daughters, and preserving the “to hyang” (토향), the earthy flavors.
Address: To Hyang (토향)
3815 Geary St
San Francisco, CA 94118
(Now only opened for dinner)