You might not know it by going outdoors, but it's soup season. In case winter returns from its vacation, there's a new place downtown for warming Korean food, Sahn Maru on Eddy Street.
Open since Dec. 23, this comfortable restaurant on the edge of the Tenderloin is billed as a Korean barbecue house on its English sign and menu. Actually it seems to be stronger in soups and stews. The menu lists more than 20, and a waitress said these are the real specialties here. But the owner has put the 'cue front and center anyway, apparently figuring it's an easier sell than, say, soup of ground loach. He may be right, but Korean soups and stews deserve a wide audience, too.
Speaking of loach, choouh tang ($10.95) is a delicious, restorative soup made of this small fish, which lives in rice paddies. (``Good for men,'' the waitress told me. Unsure how to respond, I didn't.) It comes out bubbling hot and is orange-red with chile, but it's not blazingly spicy. The fish is ground up and mild in flavor; more than anything else, it lends meatiness and body to the broth, which also contains radish greens, cabbage and a scattering of brown beans. Ground prickly-ash pepper, related to Sichuan pepper, is served on the side; sprinkle some on for a hot/herbal bite.
Heukyumso jungol ($16.95) is a rich stew of black goat, big chunks of it, some thickly lined with fat, plus good-sized handfuls of radish greens and green onions. The broth is ruddy and complex, flavored by sesame, chile, mustard and other spices. The stew comes out bubbling hot and grows richer and meatier-tasting as you eat it. It's served with a dipping sauce of chile paste, sesame paste and prepared mustard; mix these as you wish and add a few drops of vinegar. This dish is ``good for women,'' the waitress said; I ate it anyway and felt no ill effects.
Yookgae jang (beef and green onion soup, $9.95) is more fiery and less complex in flavor, full of tender shreds of meat and vegetables, with an egg cracked over the top. Also good are al chigae (pollock roe, tofu and vegetable soup, $11.95) and daegoo maewoontang (cod, tofu and vegetable soup, $10.95), both also full of chile and served boiling hot. Unexpected but not unwelcome, in these last two, are clams and green mussels.
One disappointment was haemul (seafood) soon dubu, one of seven soft tofu soups on the menu (all $8.95). The broth was relatively bland, the seafood scarce (squid, a mussel, a couple of clams and an overcooked shrimp) and the tofu did not come in the usual delicate curds but seemed more like firm tofu in irregular chunks.
Stir-fries include a standout version of ojinguh bokkum ($10.95): squid with onion, green onion, zucchini, mushroom and shreds of carrot, served sizzling on an iron platter. The flavors are bright and distinct, not always what you get in this dish. The hot bean paste kick could be stronger, but heat and sweetness are well balanced.
The rest of the menu, which I haven't checked out, is a grab bag of popular Korean dishes. The owner is from the Cholla region in the southwest; the food is from all over the country. Included are the above-mentioned barbecue; several kinds of bibimbab (rice in a bowl with vegetables, egg and meat or seafood); pan-fried fish (labeled ``broiled,'' as Korean menus sometimes do); a handful of the battered, pan-fried dishes called jun; and noodles, including naengmyon (buckwheat), japchae (bean thread) and kalkuksoo (in soup). Lunch specials, served until 3 p.m., are all under $8.
Panchan (side dishes) are fresh and varied, eight to 10 with each meal. They've included the familiar -- kimchi of cabbage, radish, cucumber and dried-radish; namul and muchim of spinach, bean sprout and cucumber; fried fish cake; sweet-sour shreds of radish and carrot; the green onion pancake pa jun; tiny, sweet-salty dried anchovies with garlic and green chile -- as well as the less familiar -- lightly cooked broccoli; potato salad; sweet steamed egg with green onion and red pepper; refreshing, lightly salted cabbage stuffed with ginger, carrot and green onion.
Dessert, which doesn't come in a gum wrapper, is worth mentioning: a reddish-brown chilled brew of ginger and cinnamon, sweet but not too sweet, sprinkled with pine nuts and bits of dried red date -- all pleasing flavors at the end of a meal.
I wonder if this restaurant can overcome its location. It's not so awful, really, a block west of the Parc 55 hotel and within sight of the Powell Street cable car turnaround. After dark, however, the hood clears out and feels dicier than it actually is. Yet there are at least a couple of reasons for people to visit this stretch of Eddy at night: the retro dance club Polly Esther's just upstairs, Exit Theatre across the street. And few other restaurants in the immediate area are competing for business. There's Original Joe's around the corner, Punjab Kabab House a half block east (is it reopening or not?), and that about covers the nearby chow options, unless the Tea Room all-male theater is quietly serving fine Lapsang Souchong. So Sahn Maru might just have a chance. It deserves one.
177 Eddy St. (between Mason and Taylor), San Francisco
Open 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday through Wednesday, until 4 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. Free parking in the lot next door.