Many Korean folk tales begin with an old refrain, “Back then, tigers were still smoking”. Korea is full of mountains and forests, once home to tigers that reached mythological proportions in folklore, says Chef Jeong-In Hwang to Eater. And so a lively, pipe-smoking tiger became just the right animal emblem for the new San Ho Won in the mission. The new Korean barbecue restaurant has a clean white exterior with a cube lantern glowing over the street during the magic hour. But when you step into the modern and minimalist space, you are greeted with the crackling and crackling of lychee wood lighting the central grill, sending tender smoky tendrils through the dining room, evoking the comfort and nostalgia of the dishes to come.
San Ho Won quietly opened on Monday November 1st last week; Eater SF readers have already gobbled up a first look at the smoky and soulful menu. But now, take a look inside for a full tour of the impressive new space and a deeper understanding of the dishes. Chef Corey Lee is one of the few three Michelin-starred Korean chefs in the world, and since San Francisco – 50 minutes from Santa Clara, with its more recognizable Koreatown – doesn’t have a huge variety of Korean restaurants, San Ho Won’s arrival seems like something To be special.
San Ho Won lives in a quiet Mission apartment block on Bryant near the 20th. Blowfish Sushi rocked dynamite rolls in this place for 20 years, but architect Charles Hemminger (Trick Dog, Tartine, State Bird, Outerlands) oversaw a full renovation for San Ho Won, adding weight to the room. The dining room is now a grounded space as the team ripped out the bar on the left and balanced the space with eight generous alcoves on either side. The former sushi bar in the rear is now an open kitchen, with eight low seats at the front counter, in case you want to watch your ribeye roast. Another half-dozen tables fill the space, and an elegant sideboard at the front displays a dramatic floral arrangement.
Step through back left and a private dining room has 16 more seats plus its own smaller grill to give those diners the full experience and serve meat as soon as it’s seared, says Hwang. The artist Taegyu Lim installed two murals in this rear area, one imitating American Gothic but depicting a Korean family, and a larger blue abstract reminiscent of mountain ranges. The smoking tiger is on the menus and appears on the matchboxes you might catch on the way out. Overall, the concrete floors, the exposed bricks, the ash wood bar and the anthracite gray color combine to create a modern, clean and industrial space.
The heart of this restaurant is the central grill, specially ordered from Ovenworks in Texas and equipped with a rotisserie, oven and grate. All three are fired with lychee wood, which, according to the chef, burns exceptionally hot and clean. Looking back at the menu, Chef Jeong-In Hwang explains that the biggest difference between San Ho Won and other Korean grill restaurants in the Bay Area is the central grill, which means that gourmet chefs will perfect all of these marinated meats for you, not that more casual – although equally entertaining – grilling experience at the table.
As you’d expect from a Corey Lee restaurant, great attention to detail is used here, from seasonal ingredients to elaborate techniques. The team ferment and marinate themselves, which can take days, months, or even years, in the case of Doenjang soybean paste, which was fermented on Benu’s terrace for five years before submerging umami in the clam stew San Ho won.
It’s a meaty menu, and the grill area alone serves five different cuts of meat, four house sauces, and a trio of beautiful salads. Hwang expects the double-cut galbi, the well-known short-rib dish, as a crowd-pleaser, but cut twice as thick and also cooked twice, first braised and then grilled to ensure a perfect texture to the bone. In addition to grilling, stews and rice dishes are more convenient, including jjigae and jook served in gamasot pots or bibimbap and fried rice with nutty, crispy grains on the bottom. One of Hwang’s personal favorite dishes is the spicy chicken tteokbokki, with chicken thighs that are both braised and then grilled, then tossed with crispy rice cakes and sunk into a cheeky stew that is “really rustic and delicious.”
“Most of our dishes are [ones] Easy to find at home, ”says Hwang. “But our versions are much more developed than home cooking because we have our cooks, techniques and identity.”
San Ho Won opened Monday November 1st with limited hours Thursday through Sunday. The opening times on November 17th will be extended to Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.