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Dishes Love: Omogari is a great example of the quality and diversity of Korean cuisine.

Coming Soontofu

Omogari will help you brush up on your culinary vocabulary before Korean food gets big

By Stett Holbrook

UNLESS YOU'RE Korean or know someone who is, Korean food can be a little hard to get to know. In spite of a profusion of Korean restaurants in Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, the cuisine doesn't have the familiarity of other ethnic cuisines in Silicon Valley. There are few Korean cookbooks to help bring you up to speed, and there are no Korean celebrity chefs on TV introducing the uninitiated to the food of the Korean peninsula. But given the quality and diversity of Korean food, it's only a matter of time before dishes like soontofu and bibimbap become household names.

In the meantime, diners interested in this hearty and often spicy cuisine have to be content to work their way through menus with dishes that sound strange to Western ears. Fortunately, Omogari in San Jose's Japantown makes getting to know Korean food a lot easier than many other Korean restaurants. The menu includes pictures of many dishes that help give you a better idea of what you're ordering as well as icons that tell you what dishes include beef, fish, chicken, etc.

Omogari's friendly service helps draw you in an as well. Sunny Turner, an immigrant from central Korea, owns the restaurant and runs it with her two sons. She cooks, takes orders and helps bus tables. Turner's husband helps out sometimes, too. Between the four of them, they give the place a friendly, welcoming charm. The dining room is small and adorned with Korean art, teapots and other knickknacks, an intimate setting that adds to the restaurant's family-run appeal.

Most Korean meals begin with a table-crowding array of Korean side dishes called panchan. The quality and variety of these dishes vary from restaurant to restaurant, and Omogari scores well in both areas. There are spicy pickled turnips, green onion-laced kim chi (spicy fermented cabbage), pickled cucumbers, pickled bean sprouts and marinated potatoes. The dishes pique your appetite and help aid in digestion. Pickled dishes do that, you know. The kim chi is particularly good. Owning to Turner's central Korean background, the cabbage has less fish sauce than versions closer to the coast. The addition of green onions and sesame seeds gives it a complex, savory flavor.

Omogari's menu is smaller than most Korean restaurants, which makes ordering less daunting. There are a handful of rice dishes, stone pot meals, stews, noodles and soft tofu hot pot dishes, also called soontofu.

Bibimbap, a jumble of stir-fried vegetables and meat served on top of rice with a fried or raw egg on top, is to Korean food as the hamburger is to American food. It's cheap, satisfying and immensely popular. Omogari serves this classic dish as well a sizzling stone pot version (dol sot bibimbap $10.95) that's really good. The dish arrives steaming and sputtering in a black ceramic pot. (Among other things, Omogari means "earthen bowl" and "deep pot.") Inside are bits of highly seasoned beef, shredded carrots, radishes and other vegetables on top of sticky, stout-grained rice. A fried egg lids the whole concoction. The idea here is to mix it all up with a squirt from the bottle of chile sauce on the table. It's a robust yet light dish. Best of all is the crunchy mantle of rice that forms on the bottom of the pot.

I'm a big fan of short ribs (gal gee) and Omogari's ($13.95) are great.

Stacked in a lacquered pile on top of sautéed white onions on a sizzling iron platter, the ribs are thinly cut and marinated in a rich, salty sweet glaze.

They're grilled, so they're not quite as tender as the slow-cooked Western versions of this dish, but I was gnawing the bones nonetheless.

Even better is dae gee bul go gi ($9.95), spicy marinated pork. The dish is served on a hot iron platter like the short ribs. The red-tinted pork is tender and deeply flavorful. The chile heat is balanced with a smoky, garlicky sauce.

The one dish that left me a little flat was the Korean ramen ($7.95). Perhaps because I was in Japantown, I had visions of Japanese ramen, plump, freshly made noodles and rich sliced pork afloat in a slurpable broth.

But Omogari's version is more spare. The noodles are not house-made and the broth is a little spicy but otherwise rather anemic. The kim chi fried rice served with it is simple but good.

Kinda like Omogari itself.

Address: 154 E. Jackson St., San Jose.
Phone: 408.280.6588.
Hours: Open 11:30am-9:30pm Mon-Sat.
Cuisine: Korean.
Price Range: $7.95-$13.95.

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From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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