Last week I had a chance to explore a little of Santa Clara's soondubu row along El Camino. Haven't gotten much further than a three-block stretch for either Indian or Korean, but so far, so good.
Tong Soon Garden (next to the strip mall shared by Sidedish Corner and Cafe Dhaka) has been one of our favorites for Korean-Chinese. Next to it is a busy Korean restaurant identified only as "Korean BBQ" on the building. When you stand on the street in front of the two, the cooking aromas emanating from this pair smell so good. Finally curiosity got the better of us and we gave it a try. This unassuming, no-name restaurant has a stellar kitchen --- don't wait as long as we did to try it. While it doesn't identify itself outside, the menus say "Sigoljip" or "Si-gol-jip" Korean BBQ Restaurant.
We ordered an appetizer and two larger dishes, which were more generously proportioned than we expected. Combined with our panchan, this was a ton of food . . . make that a ton and a half!
First out was our appetizer of Gool Jun (oyster with fried green onion in batter), $12.95. This was a dozen or so small and very fresh oysters dipped in an egg batter dotted with green onions. Cooked until just barely done, the plump oysters were still creamy and soft in the middle with a sweet and mild flavor. With a splash of the garlicky vinegar dipping sauce, these were just terrific.. We hadn't expected such a large portion for that price nor such high quality oysters. My brother doesn't even like oysters that much, or maybe he just has very high standards, and he thought this was a great dish. A bargain too and one that we'll be sure to order again during the "r" months.
With the oyster dish, the panchan marched out, all eight of them, as well as soup and bowls of plain steamed rice. The soup was a light vegetable broth full to the brim with cubes of tender daikon and firm tofu. Sipped at intervals its understated vegetable sweetness and blankness of the tofu provided welcome contrast to the spicier dishes.
All the panchan were good and included a few standouts. The bean "jello" (don't know what else to call it) sliced and sauced with a spicy, garlicky scallion chili oil was nearly identical to a similar Chinese dish. The braised mixed vegetables steeped in a briny and very hot-spicy marinade was especially interesting. Zucchini, onions, bamboo shoots, celery, and a mystery vegetable that we learned was broccoli stems made a giardiniera on steroids. I say on steroids because the heat cut like a laser across the palate and persisted for a long time. I was actually afraid to eat the thickly cut cooked squash because it seemed like a sponge for the seasonings and told my brother that it was all his. He confirmed that it was extra hot when the juices gushed out as he chewed. The broccoli stems had a peppery bite under the flavor of the marinade and an uncooked green flavor and wet crunch to them. The soft Napa cabbage kimchi had a high-toned tartness and very long finish and tasted especially good combined with a mouthful of the kalbi. This was William's first encounter with Korean type of fish cake and he liked it very much. It had a spongier and less tough texture to it. I had noticed a seaweed panchan on the other tables that we hadn't been served. When I asked about it, our waitress didn't hesitate to bring it out as a ninth dish of panchan. The shreds of fresh and almost crunchy kelp and leeks were barely warm and lightly seasoned so that their natural flavor blossomed and was not obscured.
Kal Bi Naeng Myun (Korean barbecued short ribs with chilled buckwheat noodles), $17.95, surprised us with the size of the "side" of short ribs. These were well-marbled, tender-chewy and deeply beefy, and had no visible chunks of fat. This was good quality beef. They were a bit lacking in smoky/charred tones and the marinade was a bit too sweet, but still very enjoyable. The broth for the naeng myun was subtle and not that beefy in flavor. It already had notes of vinegar and mustard mixed in and we didn't add any more. The noodles had a good spring to them, but I was a bit disappointed that the garnish did not include apple or pear for some natural sweetness.
The menu here offers three different dishes made with goat. We picked the non-soup prep, Heok Yum So Bok Kum (black goat and vegetables in hot sauce), $16.95. Completely stuffed by the time it came to the table, it was a shame because this was a great dish too and deserved a more appreciative audience. The braised goat meat had all the bones removed but included curlicued pieces of soft-as-jelly rind. We dipped the meat in the sesame seed condiment. Sauteed with onions, garlic, ground sesame, and faintly bitter sesame leaves, the sauce on the goat was delicious with steamed rice. William commented that the heaped platter didn't look much different than a Mexican or Indian goat cooked in sauce or its juices and he wondered if he should try this wrapped in tortillas or with naan also.
Other dishes that we noticed seemed to be popular were dae ji bulgogi (barbecued pork) and gool bo sam (fresh oyster with steamed pork and lettuce). Trays of the latter were garnished with chopped fresh jalapeño chilis, mounds of raw garlic, steamed pork belly, and leaf lettuce for wrapping. I'd love to hear what else chowhounds recommend here. William and I declared Sigoljip the leader in the Korean restaurants we've tried so far. No dessert was offered, just a couple mints with the bill. This set us back $57, including tax and tip, and we could have easily fed two more people. William had nearly a quart of the goat leftover to take home.
Si-gol-jip Korean B. B. Q. Restaurant
2358 El Camino Real
Santa Clara 95051
Open 7 days, 11am to 11pm