Many Korean folktales begin with an old refrain, “back when tigers used to smoke.” Korea is filled with mountains and forests once home to tigers, which reached mythological proportions in folklore, chef Jeong-In Hwang tells Eater. And so a jaunty tiger smoking a pipe became just the right animal emblem for the new San Ho Won in the Mission. The new Korean barbecue restaurant boasts a clean white exterior with a cube lantern glowing above the street during magic hour. But step inside the modern and minimalist space, and you’ll be greeted with the snap and crackle of lychee wood firing the central grill, sending delicate tendrils of smoke through the dining room and conjuring the comfort and nostalgia of the dishes to come.
San Ho Won quietly opened last week on Monday, November 1; Eater SF readers already devoured a first look at the smoky and soulful menu. But now take a look inside to get a full tour of the striking new space and a deeper understanding of the dishes. Chef Corey Lee is one of the few chefs of Korean heritage with three Michelin stars in the world, and given that San Francisco — 50 minutes from Santa Clara, with its more identifiable Koreatown — doesn’t have a wide range of Korean restaurants, San Ho Won’s arrival seems special.
San Ho Won inhabits a quiet and residential block of the Mission on Bryant near 20th. Blowfish Sushi rocked dynamite rolls at this location for 20 years, but architect Charles Hemminger (Trick Dog, Tartine, State Bird, Outerlands) oversaw a full renovation for San Ho Won and brought the space more gravitas. The dining room is now a grounded square, as the team ripped out the bar on the left side, and balanced the room with eight generous booths on both sides. The former sushi bar in the back is now an open kitchen, with eight low seats at the counter in front, should you want to watch your ribeye sizzle. Another half a dozen or so tables fill the room, and an elegant credenza at the front showcases a dramatic floral arrangement.
Step through the back left, and a private dining room secludes 16 more seats, as well as its own smaller grill, both to give those diners the full experience and serve meats as soon as they’re seared, Hwang says. Artist Taegyu Lim installed two murals in this back area, one that imitates American Gothic but features a Korean family, as well as a larger blue abstract that evokes mountain ranges. The smoking tiger lounges on the menus and pops up on the matchboxes you might grab on the way out. Overall, the concrete floors, exposed brick, ashwood bar, and charcoal gray paint come together to fill a space that’s modern, clean, and industrial.
The heart of this restaurant is the central grill, custom ordered from Ovenworks in Texas, and kitted out with a rotisserie, oven, and grate. All three are fired by lychee wood, which the chef says burns exceptionally hot and clean. Revisiting the menu, chef Jeong-In Hwang explains the biggest difference between San Ho Won and other Korean barbecue restaurants in the Bay Area is that central grill, which means fine-dining chefs are perfecting all of those marinated meats for you, rather than the more casual — although equally fun — experience of tableside grilling yourself.
As to be expected from a Corey Lee restaurant, there’s an intense attention to detail, from seasonal ingredients to laborious techniques. The team is doing its own long fermenting and marinating, which can take days, months, or even years, in the case of the doenjang soybean paste that’s been fermented for five years on the patio at Benu, before sinking umami into the clam stew at San Ho Won.
It’s a meaty menu, and the barbecue section alone serves up five different cuts of meat, four house sauces, and a trio of gorgeous lettuces. Hwang expects the crowd favorite to be the double-cut galbi, which is the familiar short rib dish, but cut twice as thick, and also cooked twice, first braised then grilled to ensure perfect texture down to the bone. Beyond barbecue, stews and rice dishes serve up more home comforts, including jjigae and jook served in gamasot pots, or bibimbap and fried rice with nutty, crispy grains on the bottom. One of Hwang’s personal favorite dishes is the spicy chicken tteokbokki, with chicken thighs that are both braised then grilled, then tossed with crispy rice cakes and sunk into a saucy stew, that’s “really rustic and very tasty.”
“Most of our dishes are [ones] you could easily find at home,” Hwang says. “But our versions are much more developed than home cooking because we have our chefs and techniques and identity.”
San Ho Won opened Monday, November 1 with limited hours Thursday to Sunday. Hours will expand on November 17, to Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.