Tuesday, October 13, 2009

San Soo Kap San: Real Deal Korean

Late Saturday morning, while checking my online accounts, I came across a Tweet from my friend Bryant announcing he was going to our favorite Korean BBQ restaurant of all time, San Soo Kap San in Downtown Flushing. “Did my invite get lost in the mail?” I tweeted in reply. “I’ve got nothing going on today except a jones for Korean!” Sadly, Bryant’s tweet had been published 40 minutes prior to my reading, so I figured my reply was hitting nothing but digital ether. Around 11:40, my phone rang. Could I be ready in 20 minutes, asked a still-in-his-apartment-Bryant? If so, him, his wife Karen, and their friend David would be more than happy to swing by. “But if you’re not waiting outside when we get there, we’re all coming in,” he warned. I looked down. I was still in my pajamas. “I can do it!” I said more to myself than to Bryant as I had already hung up the phone and was throwing together an outfit.

A little after twelve, not only was I ready, I had had time grab a bottle of Riesling for the party kind enough to pick me up, and send out one last Tweet: “Guilt trip worked! I’m going too!”

Fast forward to San Soo Kap San, the place of tiny miracles, also known as banchan, dishes which litter diners’ tables before any actual ordered food arrives (think tapas… but free).

There was octopus in a red, tangy sauce; pickled baby bok choy; three types of kimchi in varying degrees of hotness (my favorite was the slightly sweet variety with pickled daikon); red bean rice; some sort of thread-like yellow substance with an intense flavor similar to dried squid; two whole smoked mackerel (heads and all), agar slabs with sesame soy sauce; oh, and one thing that no one ate: raw crab still in its shell with a fiery red sauce on top. It pained me not to try this dish because I love trying new things, but sadly, I couldn’t figure out how to eat this lil critter. I couldn’t break the crab without getting all the hot red goo on my hands, and when I finally did manage to pry a leg open, a smidgen of gelatinous crab gut oozed out. And this smidgen was not chopstick-friendly. Instead, it kind of just hung out on my plate and looked nasty.

What did we actually order? There were pan-fried dumplings similar to Japanese gyoza:
Rice cake soup:
This is one of my favorite comfort foods—miso broth, pork, scallions, and oval-shaped gummy treasures of rice, which don’t have much of a taste, just a pleasant, chewy texture.

David also insisted on a bowl of bibimbap:
Warm white rice, seaweed, enoki mushrooms, shiitake, bellflower root, burdock root, squash, some other unidentifiable stuff, all topped with a raw egg (it cooks when you add it to the steaming mixture), and sprinkled with a chili pepper mixture. A fine choice.

To cook over the gas grill were orders of Bulgogi (a thinly-sliced beef):
... and butterflied shrimp, all delightfully seasoned with soy sauce, sugar, garlic, and a bit of rice wine vinegar. These proteins can be cooked and eaten straight up or placed on provided lettuce wraps, which are then lined with any or all of the following: fermented soybean dressing, pickled daikon, garlic, and hot peppers. The grill-action is sublime. None of us are strangers to the bulgogii or pork (the bulgogii is cooked first, everyone promptly declares it sensational, but then the pork comes out, and suddenly everyone remembers that the pork sooooo trumps the bulgogii). This time, however, Karen’s wildcard-order of shrimp usurped just about everything on the table. Perfectly grilled, incredibly succulent—‘twas sensational.

To drink is complimentary barley tea. It’s heartier and nuttier than (but slightly reminiscent of) genmaicha (green tea with the little pieces of popcorn and brown rice). For dessert: standard orange slices.

Here’s some additional banchan on San Soo: the joint is open 24-hours, which makes it an ideal stop for hungry cabbies or the late-night snack attack; the atmosphere is pretty basic (this is not a place you frequent for ambience); the menu is difficult to read, made all the more tricky by servers who speak limited English; parking is a beeeatch—there’s a big lot across the street, but good luck finding a spot or deciphering the color-coded spots; prices are refreshingly cheap (we ordered a massive amount of food and the bill for our table-of-four was about $90); and the surrounding area is great for exploring candy shops, bubble tea, and Asian specialty stores.

If the above sounds intriguing, and you’re looking for real-deal-Holyfield Korean, give San Soo Kap San a shot. Heck, the worst that could happen is you will get utterly and completely lost in Flushing, have no clue as to where to park if you actually find the garage, experience a Lost in Translation moment if you make it to the restaurant, and then end up with plate after plate raw, gray, gelatinous crab.

But really: it’s fabulous.

(Special thanks to David for deciphering some of the stuff we ate!)

San Soo Kap San
38-13 Union St
Flushing, NY 11354
(718) 445-1165


  1. Oooo. I'm extremely wary of eating Korean food that's not my mom's cooking (almost never do it), but this post just made my mouth water. =D

  2. They have a great lunch special, with all the banchan as well! Worth the schlep from Manhattan. We are often the only non-Koreans there, which is always a god sign.