We show up for dinner early on a Sunday evening, knowing it’s the best chance to snag a table before the sun sets and the crowds come, as they surely will.
I’m on my third visit to YD House and I know by now what to expect – peppy service, robust cooking, a room full of people immersed in the joy of dining and, yes, a room filled with sights and sounds that are very Korean.
You probably don’t often associate a generic strip mall with a captivating cultural experience, but you just may find one here – this unassuming row of retail, one of so many like it up and down boulevards in nearly every American town.
A visit to YD House, however, is anything but a surrender to the lowest common denominator.
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We may be still in Sacramento, but once inside this cozy, diner-style restaurant, and once the food begins to fly out of the kitchen, there is no mistaking that we are somewhere very different and far away.
There is almost nothing American about this meal, or any of my previous ones here, save for the bilingual menus, the American currency and a rather amazing, if not tongue-in-cheek, interpretation of American pizza.
The plates clang. The soups bubble in heavy cast irons pots, even as they come to rest on our table. There are all kinds of colors, flavors, aromas, textures, any number of plates and bowls large and small that blanket the table. The ingredients are both exotic (oxtail soup, pig’s feet, beef tendon) and familiar (fried chicken). The menu offers chicken, fish, beef, soups and more.
And the banchan, those tiny dishes that serve as appetizers and usually include fermented vegetables or seafood, is unlike anything you’ll see in other global cuisines.
At one point, I counted 35 dishes nestled onto our table for five people. We encountered the same kind of thing a few years back during our visits to the impressive Pine Tree House, also on Folsom Boulevard. (In fact, there is a large Korean population in this area and several Korean restaurants vying for their business.) The array of food at YD House is incredible, even to those experienced in this cuisine. To the uninitiated, the food, and the experience, can seem daunting, if not confusing.
Take, for instance, how you order. Maybe you ask for a soup – a big bowl of soup that will serve as a main entrée. Someone else asks for fried chicken or a tofu bibimbap (spelled “bibimbob” on YD’s menu), the renowned and ubiquitous Korean rice-based dish that is often a hodgepodge of ingredients, often including meat and bean sprouts and, in many cases, an egg.
The server leaves and the bustling kitchen is hard at work. Then comes the banchan, and you may wonder what is going on.
At Korean restaurants, there’s often this rather amazing selection of food served at the outset of the meal and is usually enjoyed with a small side dish of plain white rice. Think of it as small, exotic appetizers that are free of charge. YD House’s banchan, so fresh and alive with quality, is the best banchan we’ve seen. You will also receive a pair of scissors. I’m not aware of another cuisine where scissors are common table-side. They’re very practical. Use them to cut up the large pieces of cabbage quickly and with ease.
Some of the banchan will seem familiar, some odd or even off-putting at first. Those crisp little anchovies covered in garlic, for instance, are incredibly good – deliciously chewy, pleasingly salty and full of flavor, and they ate almost like small pieces of jerky. OK, so maybe you don’t look at their little faces as you put them in your mouth.
The kimchi, the best-known banchan item, is fermented napa cabbage, and here it has a light red sauce that’s a mix of heat and sweet. There’s seaweed that includes dried cuttlefish marinated in chili, sugar and spices; and raw squid picked in chili and spices. Both are highly recommended. There are so many little dishes that, frankly, you could fill up and be completely happy eating only the banchan.
On a previous visit, my oxtail soup, ggori gom tang ($15.99), steaming as it was set in front of me, came with the advice from our server that I could and should add salt according to taste. There is a container of sea salt at each table and, after tasting the thin broth, I added about half a teaspoon of salt. The soup comes with several pieces of bone, with ultra tender meat and fat and tendon clinging. You slurp and nibble and slurp some more. It’s such a soothing dish on a chilly day.
The chicken teriyaki is on the menu, and we gave it a try, but it’s one of the few ho-hum dishes at this place and I wouldn’t recommend it for someone looking for a quintessential Korean dish. That tofu bibimbap dish was also rather ordinary, though it could be livened up with some spicy heat by mixing in an available sauce.
The “jok bal” surprised us a little, as it came to our table cold, this rather massive amount of pork that is actually from the pig’s feet and lower leg. I had the pig’s feet dish at Pine Tree House, and it too was an extra-large serving of sliced pork, far too much for one person. If you get the jok bal, I’d suggest it as something to share for a large gathering, enjoying it as an accompaniment rather than a main dish. It’s tender, nicely flavored pork and a sauce, and nothing more.
One surprisingly inviting dish that may seem off-putting to newcomers is the “soon dae jupsi,” which is a large serving of stuffed blood sausage. I assumed it was pork, but it’s actually beef. It is very dark, practically black, and is served in large, bite-sized pieces. The last time I had blood sausage was at AQ in San Francisco, where chef Mark Liberman served it as “boudin noir,” sausage made with pig’s blood. That was incredible, a rich and meaty gastronomic adventure. But this was much different. If you didn’t look at it, you may actually think you are smelling and tasting the stuffing from a traditional American Thanksgiving turkey.
Now, there was the matter of a pizza. Would it be weird to order a pizza at a Korean restaurant? Kitschy? Or very cool? We thought we’d give it a try. After all, my two friends had their two kids with them, ages 4 and 2, and they had already shown their foodie credentials by wolfing down the blood sausage and noshing enthusiastically on the pig’s feet.
The pizza, it turns out, was beyond cool. It was fantastic and, yes, very Korean, maybe a bit whimsical in conception but beautifully executed. How so? When I first got wind of this dish weeks earlier, I was expecting a bad, bready crust, gloppy cheese and pretty much a disaster of a dish. But as I got to know and trust this kitchen, I figured it was going to be something special.
Indeed, it was. On the menu, it is listed as “pizza kimchi beef dolsot” ($14.99). There is another version with shrimp ($15.99). The name of the dish gave away a few clues. The kimchi would give the pizza some textural heft. Dolsot suggested there might be rice involved. Bibimbap dolsot is a hot version of bibimbap served in a heavy iron pot (and usually with a raw egg, which cooks as it nests with the other piping hot ingredients).
When this “pizza” finally arrived, it was quite a sight, presented on a large cast-iron platter, the steam still rising and wafting from the pale melted cheese and pieces of ground beef. Alas, there was a crust, but it wasn’t made of bread. It was rice, cooked and then seared until it crisps up and is nearly burned. When you dig out a piece with the serving spoon, the rice will often stay clumped together. This singeing of the rice is intentional in Korean cooking. They even have a name for it: noo-roong-ji.
The kids loved it. The adults loved it. You’d never get away with calling this “pizza” at any mainstream American eatery, but it is a great success here. It’s hearty. It’s eclectic in flavor. There are offsetting textures – the gooey, molten cheese, and the crispy rice, the crunchy cabbage and tender bits of beef. And most of all, like nearly everything else about this rich experience with food and culture, it turned out to be very Korean.