This week, we take a look at two casual and affordable places doing very different takes on Korean fusion cooking. Both use the vibrant and eclectic flavors of Korean cuisine in ways that marry centuries-old traditions with 21st century sensibilities.
The result? Dishes that are at once accessible, exotic, familiar and foreign.
This is not fine dining, but if you're looking for a lively, engaging and delicious food experience, both of these joints are good options for an enriching a cross-cultural palate.
Tako Korean BBQ wasn't supposed to be what it is. Tacos, burritos and quesadillas were not on the minds of restaurateurs Yoon Hee Cho and Alex Wan when they approached D&S Development about starting a restaurant.
The newly renovated and instantly charming 800- square-foot vintage gas station at the corner of Alhambra Boulevard and T Street was pegged as a taqueria.
After closing Yunice 61, a highly regarded but underachieving barbecue joint in Rancho Cordova, the two were thinking about trying something similar in an urban setting.
Because D&S had applied for a permit to open a taqueria, Cho and Wan were stymied. So they brainstormed. The best creative ideas often come after facing a significant hurdle. They knew about the popularity of Korean tacos in Southern California. They knew they could bring something creative, genuine and playful to this kind of fusion.
The small restaurant opened in July amid plenty of social media buzz. Tako wasn't prepared for the onslaught – there were massive lines, long waits and chaos galore. On Yelp, the haters were gonna hate. Those who didn't understand or open their minds to the flavors accused Tako of being trendy, derivative and yesterday's news.
That's not the case what-soever.
The disorganization didn't last long and Tako won over fans who became devoted regulars, myself included.
The kimchi quesadilla ($5) is my favorite item on the menu, a tour de force of color, texture and flavor that stands tall and proud at the intersection of imaginative and seriously good.
It's a quesadilla in size and shape, transformed to a new dimension by crunchy, fermented Napa cabbage (created from scratch by Cho's mother), perfectly toasty tortillas and gooey cheese. The purple finishing sauce drizzled over the top gives it creamy texture and visual appeal – it's made with blueberries.
And if you go with the highly recommended spicy pork as an add-on ($2), you have one of the greatest little meals going.
Tako Korean BBQ knows what it's doing with meats and these folks understand flavor. The bulgogi (marinated beef) has a gentle sweetness on the palate.
In fact, several of the dishes here enjoy that balance of salty, sweet and spicy.
I liked the bulgogi best in the salad bowl ($7), where it stands out amid the crisp slaw, rice, sour cream and sauce. This is a great dish for a light lunch that won't bog you down.
The rice bowls (with brown or white rice) come with choice of meat or tofu. My favorite is the buldak (fire chicken). How does it get its name? Take one bite, then another see your tongue spontaneously combusts? Though the amount of heat ranged from medium-hot to ferocious inferno during several visits, it's tasty at any temperature.
At night, wash it down with one of the four beers on tap, including Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Stella Artois.
In less than a year, Tako Korean BBQ has resurrected a dying street corner, brought charm and good cheer to a neighborhood and made us thankful for food that is so good, so playful and so very affordable.
Ramen & Rice
Ramen & Rice is a new little joint run by restaurant veterans. This isn't their first attempt at nailing the vital elements of blue-collar, elbows-on-the-table Korean cuisine. Nor is Korean-born chef and owner Chuck Kim a rookie with the Japanese side of his menu. He owned ramen and sushi restaurants in Berkeley for several years and, now that he's in Sacramento, he has already carved out a mini-empire in a Howe Avenue strip mall (Sushi Hook in the same center is also his).
Our three visits to Ramen & Rice covered nearly everything on this compact, seemingly straightforward menu – eight kinds of ramen, three types of bibimbap (vegetables cooked separately and served over rice with an egg) and three styles of rice bowls, all with various options for add-ons. And everything is under $10, a bargain made even more impressive once I realized I couldn't possibly finish what I ordered.
The ramen bowls are huge. Determined as I was, I never managed to finish one. Before my third visit, I fasted all day, ordered the crazy-spicy "champong" ramen and broth with mussels, squid and shrimp – and couldn't eat half of it.
When it comes to the piquancy, choose carefully. Options run the gamut from soothing and mild to nuclear. When I ordered the champong (No. 6 on the menu), our server looked at me and asked, "Have you had it before? It's very hot."
"No, but I like spicy food."
"But this is hot even for me – and I'm Asian."
I relented and went with her suggestion to get a wimpier level of heat. Alas, it was too hot.
I labored, I winced, I smiled at the deliciousness, and blanched at the enormity. It was hot in temperature and super-hot in spiciness, even while managing an overall beautiful balance, a tour de force that humbled this correspondent. I excused myself, ducked into the men's room and blew my nose. My eyes were watery. I wanted a hug from my mom.
My significant other waited patiently. She had finished her gently spiced curry ramen dish a full 30 minutes before I surrendered. We were both full, happy, impressed and humbled – for under $20.
Though the fiery No. 6 promises to become this joint's signature dish, there are several ways to dine here that don't mandate crawling under the table and into a fetal position.
The bibimbap dishes are all very good, especially the colorful and eclectic dolsot served in a hot stone bowl with choice of brown or white rice, sautéed vegetables and an egg that you promptly pierce, allowing the yolk to ooze throughout and make the whole thing luxuriously creamy. The bowl arrives at your table sizzling like breakfast bacon.
This take on Korean and Japanese fusion keeps it simple and is one of many reasons Ramen & Rice has fast become a restaurant with staying power. We'll be back soon to tackle the No. 6 with even more steely determination.
TAKO KOREAN BBQ
3030 T St., Sacramento
(916) 346-4933 www.sactako.com
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Overall ★ ★ ★ 1/2 (out of four stars)
Housed in a charming vintage gas station, this fusion of Korean and Mexican cuisines is creative, playful and delicious. The early service and long waits have been resolved and Tako has become a hit. Favorites include the kimchi quesadilla with spicy pork, the salad topped with marinated steak (bulgogi) and the rice bowl with buldak (spicy chicken).
RAMEN & RICE
807 Howe Ave., Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4-10 p.m. Friday; 4-10 p.m. Saturday
Overall ★ ★ ★ 1/2 (out of four stars)
In a casual, no-nonsense setting, chef Chuck Kim cooks excellent Korean and Japanese dishes while wife Lee provides friendly and attentive service. The "champong" ramen with mussels, squid and shrimp is outstanding and promises to become the signature dish, even if the heat can overwhelm hearty palates. The bibimbap rice and vegetable dishes are also first-rate. All the other ramens are also recommended, including the gently spicy curry ramen.