Have you ever experienced the worrisome feeling that if you don’t get something (usually food), while you have the chance, you just might die?
Everyone has an inner child, that slightly spoiled sliver of our mind that manifests itself when we’re faced with a strong yearning. I felt such a yearning recently during a trip to San Francisco. The source of my lust was Namu Gaji, a small Korean establishment at the corner of 18th and Dolores, just down the street from Tartine Bakery in the Mission.
Eater has become an oft used resource of mine for finding new and delicious destinations (what about Yelp you might ask…well here’s a hint). I found Namu Gaji mentioned there not once, but twice, as a place to be held in high regard. One of the many reasons are their time-specific menu items that are only available during certain parts of the day and sometimes on weekends. One of these is the KFC. We here at Eat a Duck have learned that when a restaurant deems it necessary to announce the limited supply of some extremely popular item, you’d better be the first in line, because a double down on deliciousness is in order.
We arrived in San Francisco from Palo Alto the morning after a wedding with a mere 36 hours of eating available to us. Hardly a lot of time, but in a city so magnificent, you can cover a lot of ground fast. While Jimmy was indisposed with his groomsmen duties, I hunkered down in the hotel room carefully planning our unrestrained campaign. I couldn’t get Namu Gaji out of my mind, every conversation Jimmy and I had during the wedding weekend centered on where we were going to be eating, and I made sure to pepper Namu Gaji’s name in there liberally. “I hear Namu Gaji is nice this time of year…Jimmy, did you know Namu Gaji is open for brunch?…Jimmy… Namu Gaji?”.
My persistent pestering paid off as we added Namu to the itinerary with the goal to arrive as soon as the doors opened. We ended up arriving 15 minutes after opening, and scampered toward the door like two teens who’s pubertal urges drove them toward the entry gates of a Color Me Badd concert ca. 1993. There was already a crowd of people lined up along the glass wall, happily slurping up bibim and ramyun soup out of oversized clay pots. They were so big and full of scalding broth the cast of Friends would have difficult handling them. At every other table, we spied beautiful people corralling fat, slippery noodles and morsels of the chopped 4505 SF hot dog that bobbed on the surface of the Ramyun. We had to order. Only then did we see, when served, there was also a delicately oblong panko fried soft egg peeking out of the broth, presenting itself in a request to be devoured.
By this time, the meal had been ordered and our amuse of one “real” Korean taco, with beef bulgogi, rice and a couple of different kimchee arrived all wrapped up in a nice dark green nori “shell”. We made quick work of the taco, admiring the flavorful combination of the beef and its contrasting kimchee mates. Coming in at around 3 1/2 bites each, they’re the perfect size to get the synapses firing. After this morsel, all that stood between us and the heralded KFC was time. It should be noted at this point, the restaurant had been open for about 25 minutes and every table was now full with more people crowding the order counter.
The space is the perfect size, tiny. Any smaller and it’d be claustrophobic, any bigger and the energy might not fill the room. You can smell the dishes near you and it’s intoxicating. We had no idea what to expect when our main arrived. I read KFC (which stands for Korean fried chicken) expecting simply a better version of what I already knew.
It came in a checked paper lined basket with fixins on the side. I couldn’t tell what the accoutrements were at first aside from the pile of pickled daikon and a small cup of gravy. I had a hard time picking up the freaking chicken as it was so freaking hot my fingerprints almost burned off. I had to throw it down at least three times as the temperature was hovering around thermonuclear. This proved to be both rewarding and perilous. Subsequent attempts to pick up the angry bird left a residue of sticky glaze on my digits that I greedily lapped up like a victorious lion. It gave me a chance to taste what all the fuss was about. The only downside was that waiting is hard. A lovely coleslaw with kimchee and kewpie mayo grabbed Jimmy and wouldn’t let go, or was it the other way around? Ah yes, it was Jimmy who greedily wouldn’t share the slaw, as it was probably the only symbol of roughage he ate all day.
When cool down time was over, Jimmy and I ripped into the thigh and breast portions, discovering how wonderfully crisp and fragile the “batter” turned out to be. The chicken itself was incredibly moist, the result of what had to have been a lengthy brine or marinade procedure. The dashi gravy was the figurative icing on the cake, to what was the single best dish I had that day. Full of nearly every flavor descriptor I can throw out there, this gravy had it all. From land, sea and air, each had their own element to make up this one perfect bite.
I couldn’t have been happier with the meal, as I keep thinking about not only the KFC, but the experience in general. It was a fast meal but a great one. I took a lot away from the dishes and hope to use them to my advantage in my kitchen as it has affected my food philosophy greatly. More and more we find cooks looking to feature their rich culture, using what I would consider classic American comfort food to bridge the gap. Namu Gaji does this to a superlative degree, better than almost anyone else out there.