Asian cuisine has been a popular part of the American culinary landscape for decades, but while Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants thrive, Korean cuisine is still a niche market.
That's a niche Alex Thao hopes to crack wide open with Saja Korean Kitchen, which opened in July in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter . Saja joins Thao's two other successful Asian restaurants in the Gaslamp, Lucky Liu's (Chinese) and Rama (Thai).
Saja takes the flavors and ingredients of Korean cuisine and presents them in a fresh, more modern, American style. Meats are cooked in the kitchen, not at tableside by diners, ensuring a more consistently seasoned and flavorful product. And the traditional side dishes, known as banchan, include a mix of old-school Korean favorites (bean sprouts, kimchi, pickled radish) with the nontraditional (edamame, broccoli).
Executive Chef Jason Velasquez came to Saja from Katsuya, the high-end Gaslamp sushi restaurant that closed last winter. He has incorporated his extensive sushi training into Saja's menu, adding some Japanese-style dishes (Korean sushi rolls, tempura), Chinese ingredients (bao buns, fried rice).
While he has tweaked some ingredients and presentation and turned down the spiciness level to appeal to a broader dining public, Velasquez hasn't monkeyed with the authentic Korean dishes that make up the bulk of Saja's menu.
This fusion of cuisines and concepts shows up first on the starters/small plates menu.
The Spicy Tuna Tar Tar is particularly tasty and more nouveau Pacific Rim than Korean. It looks like a sushi roll of pureed seasoned raw ahi topped with jalapeno slices and served atop a crispy rice cake rolled in white and black sesame seeds and quick-fried.
Another hybrid starter is the Korean Tacos, with choice of beef, spicy pork, crispy chicken or tofu served either in a "shell" of butter lettuce or a bao bun. Go for the bao. Cooked across the street at Lucky Liu, it's fresh, moist and delicious, and the tacos come with fresh microgreens and a sweet aioli sauce.
Many Korean diners like to start their meal with soondubu, a soft tofu stew that is more like a light vegetable soup. It's simple but well done at Saja.
One of the most traditional Korean dishes is the bibimbap bowl, a stone pot filled with sizzling bean sprouts, spinach, kale, broccoli, onions and a soft-fried egg that a waiter stirs up with a delicious soy glaze and choice of protein at the table. Go for the bulgogi, the meat is juicy, tender and has a rich, spicy taste.
But the best dish is the BBQ galbi, Korean BBQ short ribs served over sautéed yellow onions with a rich soy demiglaze. Choose the fluffy egg soufflé as a side.
Also worth a try is the crispy pork belly over onions and kimchi. The portion is large and the flavor is wonderful.
Saja also has a sake bar and cocktails created by mixologist Tony Coxum. If you like sweet drinks, try the refreshing Seoul Mate, a cocktail made with strawberries, kiwi, lemons and sugar.
The 2,200-square-foot restaurant has an exhibition kitchen, patio dining and a dining room decorated with Korean film posters and basket weave wall-hangings.
Saja Korean Kitchen, 417 Fourth Ave., San Diego. Sajakitchen.com.
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