Han Sung BBQ
2644 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95051
The stretch of El Camino Real in Santa Clara, CA, is a few miles long and home to one of the densest regions of Korean restaurants in North America. Here, critical mass has been reached and an entire ecosystem of supermarkets, bars, clubs, video stores as well as countless soon tobu and Korean barbecue places (and much more, I’m sure, if I could only read Korean) has evolved. This handily solves the question of where one goes to get Korean food in the Bay Area south of San Francisco or Oakland. The harder question is which place to choose?
Han Sung BBQ is one of many non-descript store fronts in Moebius strip mall land. What distinguishes it from the other barbecue places is simple: real wood charcoal. Not that gas nonsense, but the real deal. The whole place is perfumed with this scent despite the fierce ventilation system (note: I’ve read that HSB has recently completed a re-model which most people seem to give a big thumbs up, so I imagine a few strata of soot have been scrubbed from the walls in the process). The wonderful aroma of the charcoal when it arrives at your table… well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Many of us have probably heard the claim that Koreans judge a restaurant based on the quality of the banchan. In response, I’ll say I’ve never heard anybody, Korean or otherwise, say “Let’s go to Seoul/Korean Palace/House – the meat’s so-so, the jigae is mediocre, but the banchan is terrific!”. I find the banchan here above average. The diversity is very good, and the quality is generally high. I’m a traditional napa cabbage kimchi guy myself, and here it has a good balance of clean and funky and spicy (PSA for strict vegetarians: depending on who’s making it, kimchi isn’t necessarily in your permissible food group as it often involves some kind of seafood, fish or shrimp – where do you think the yummy funky flavors come from?). The rest hit on some of the greatest hits (bean sprouts, mung bean cake, cucumber kimchi), but also a few less common ones. In any case, while I enjoy the banchan, I didn’t come here for it.
As we were a rather large group, we ordered a lot of dishes. The pae jeon is often one of my favorite dishes (the excellent and sadly now closed Sa Rit Gol in LA being exemplary in my book). This one was decent but didn’t quite hit that heady combination of spicy, savory, crispy and creamy needed to give it better marks. The oyster tempura sounded like a great idea (fried! oysters!) but the oysters themselves didn’t seem to be at their peak freshness which brought that dish down a notch. The seafood jigae was very good, with a nice balance of spicy and oceanic umami. The jap jae (stir-fried mung bean noodles) was well above-average. Nice bite to the noodles, not too oily and well-integrated with the meat and veggies. A dish of rice noodles with vegetables and hot sauce sounded good, but didn’t turn out to be a hit with anyone. I suspect the problem is that the noodles were pretty bland and needed an interesting sauce to give the dish some punch, but the hot sauce seemed to lack complexity.
But what about the barbecue? The wood charcoal is definitely a key in my book. The smoky flavor you get off of the grill adds a very nice dimension to the meat. The meat itself was decent to great. The marinated spicy pork was terrific. Great flavor and cooked up beautifully. The marinated boneless chicken was very good to excellent as well. The bulgogi (marinated rib eye) was good but not my favorite, perhaps lacking a bit in the beefiness category. I’ll go with kalbi next time. While we mostly cooked the meat ourselves, the attentive and friendly servers did take it upon themselves to help us out when we clearly weren’t paying attention. All in all, a quality Korean barbecue experience.
Exploring this area of Santa Clara on one’s own could take months to years before one really gets a grasp of all the options available here. I can’t say Han Sung is the final say in Korean barbecue in the area, but it’s definitely the best of the few that I’ve tried and I’ll definitely return. But in the foodosophy spirit, I’ll also keep exploring the area for other good places as well.