El Camino Real is a quintessential California road, spanning more than 600 miles. In the Bay Area, the street is notorious for running the length of the Peninsula and can take travelers from the Mission in San Francisco all the way to San Jose in one straight shot.
Strip malls are scattered along El Camino Real, housing large chain groceries, pizza parlors, and discount retail stores. But in a particular set of strip malls in a small stretch of Santa Clara, there are dozens of Korean-owned businesses — among them a collection of restaurants that have put themselves on the map as a Koreatown, albeit one that’s markedly quieter and more dispersed than the Koreatowns in Los Angeles or New York.
Los Angeles’s Koreatown is home to a fairly large group of Koreans — more than 20 percent of the neighborhood’s population. But the Korean population in Santa Clara County has always been relatively small. In 1980, Koreans made up just 0.5 percent of the county’s population. By 1990 that number grew to about 1 percent. Today, the Santa Clara Korean community continues to remain steady at around 3 percent of the county’s population. Still, there are myriad Korean restaurants to serve the community and, in recent months, prompted by the limited number of Korean customers and 18 months of pandemic-fueled restrictions, many are reinventing themselves to serve more diners and forge an identity as a suburban Koreatown unlike any other.
While Korean barbecue restaurants may have sparked the initial appeal of Santa Clara’s Koreatown in the 1980s, today’s restaurants run the gamut, cooking foods that reflect what’s served at feasts in Korea — tofu stews, blood sausages, spicy rice cakes, braised short ribs, and black bean noodles. Korean Spring BBQ, one of the older guards and the first wooden charcoal grill Korean barbecue restaurant to open in the Bay Area, lists more than 60 dishes, while Jang Su Jang, another highly trafficked spot focused on meats and soups, boasts over 75 menu items.
This expansiveness was likely born out of the competitiveness that has long existed here. As the number of Koreatown restaurants has grown steadily over the past decades, restaurateurs have remained hesitant to stick to specialty items, instead presenting an expansive selection of dishes so customers won’t need to search elsewhere for what they want.
Eric Shin, the co-founder of Korean fusion spot Restaurant Silla, noticed the fierce sense of rivalry when he entered the Koreatown restaurant scene in 2019. “Many restaurant owners and managers know each other but we each operate in our own kingdoms,” he says. “We don’t really interact much, but in the end, I’m hopeful that we can form a deeper sense of community since we all have the same goal.”
In recent years, restaurateurs like Shin have taken active steps to find new customers and introduce them to Korean cuisine, with the broader aim of keeping this Koreatown around for the long run. Though Shin and his father initially opened Restaurant Silla to serve traditional Korean stews based on longtime family recipes, Shin specifically wanted to make Korean food more approachable to those who have not yet had a chance to explore it. When the pandemic hit, he embarked on experimental menu creations that take elements of Korean cuisines and meld them with other culinary influences. His most famous dish at Silla is a spin on the traditional Bay Area fish stew cioppino and Korean seafood stew with a creamy, spicy sauce.
Not everyone is a fan. “I notice that many Korean restaurants are catering their menus to fit the taste buds of Americans,” says Yeonsook Park, the former president of the Silicon Valley Korean American Federation (SVKAF). Although she enjoys introducing her non-Korean friends to Korean cuisine, she would prefer that Santa Clara’s Korean restaurants maintain their classic roots. “In some ways, Korean dishes are losing some of their authenticity.”
But Shin says adding such fusion dishes has attracted a wider net of customers. And the proportion of non-Korean to Korean customers in Santa Clara’s Korean restaurants has been increasing, almost exponentially over the past few years — so much so that these days, most Korean restaurants in Santa Clara serve a majority of non-Korean customers.
It’s a trend that Shin attributes in part to the “Hallyu” wave, the immense, global growth in popularity of Korean pop culture. Many of the community’s up-and-coming chefs and restaurant owners aim to appeal to younger crowds who are fans of catchy, upbeat K-pop hits and the latest binge-worthy K-dramas, and while some are turning to Americanized flavors and fusion items, others are taking cues from contemporary South Korea. Newer spots, such as Pocha K and Danawa, entered the Koreatown scene just a few years ago with the appeal of Seoul’s late-night bar culture. Even during the pandemic, their doors are open until 2 a.m., offering loud K-pop tunes, soju, and makgeolli, and bar foods like fried chicken and kimchi pancakes. These newer establishments are noticeably different from the old-school, family-friendly restaurants that make up the majority of the Santa Clara Korean restaurants.
Since Chungdam opened, the number of non-Korean visitors has steadily increased to about 60 percent of its customer base, according to manager John Yongmin Lee. The restaurant offers the typical array of Korean barbecue meats, but with a finer-dining experience. “We’re always looking to enhance our menu, and I usually keep up with the trends that are emerging in LA’s Koreatown to see how we can keep our menu fresh,” Lee says.
Chungdam’s focus on keeping up with the times successfully translated into DIY cook-at-home meat platters and Korean lunch boxes called doshiraks to stay afloat during the past year. But not all of Santa Clara’s Korean barbecue restaurants were able to sustain themselves; many faced immense losses. Some closed, unable to switch to a dining model that didn’t rely on the in-person, smoky grilling of marbled meat on hissing stone surfaces. Other Korean-owned businesses in the area, like hair salons and cafes, also faced financial strife.
“Most businesses did very poorly and there were big losses,” says long-time Santa Clara resident Kevin Park, who now serves as a city councilmember. Though organizations like the SVKAF stepped in to help coordinate donations and funding, and local patrons ordered takeout from their favorite restaurants, Kevin Park feels a more unified identity as a Koreatown would have helped buoy all of the area’s businesses, not just those that were able to appeal to their newer, non-Korean customers. “Koreatown has always been mostly a collection of restaurants and shops. It’s not a social mecca like LA Koreatown, and it’s not really a gathering place for Koreans,” he says. Though better-known urban Koreatowns have community centers and venues built for gathering, this Koreatown hasn’t had a proper communal space since it cemented itself on El Camino many years ago.
However, certain restaurants have always served as the local community’s gathering places. SGD Tofu House, one of the oldest local favorites, has been serving soondubu, Korean soft tofu soups, for more than 20 years. It was one of the few restaurants that maintained a steady business through the pandemic. Even outside of purchasing the restaurant’s takeout dishes, owner Jim Hwang says local supporters stepped up to help. “One day, one of the regulars came in and just handed me an envelope with hundreds of dollars, and many people purchased gift cards, promising not to use them until after the pandemic was over,” he says. “The community support was incredible.”
Hwang is one of the lucky ones — he is a celebrity of sorts to those who are familiar with the Koreatown food scene. Even after opening multiple SGD Tofu House branches in the Bay Area, Hwang still works at the original location in Santa Clara every day, bringing food to customers, along with crayons, papers, candies, hugs, and free kids’ orders. The walls, plastered with colorful drawings and messages of support from his young visitors, make it clear Hwang’s restaurant is more than just a place to eat.
Hwang embraces tradition, with a menu of spicy tofu stews and classic Korean dishes like bibimbap. But at the same time, SGD Tofu House welcomes those of all backgrounds who are looking to venture deeper into Korean cuisine. Hwang enjoys adding a few items to his menu every year — dishes that incorporate ingredients not usually found in Korean tofu stews, like fish eggs, dumplings, curry, and ramen.
Restaurants like SGD Tofu House have helped tear open the gates of Koreatown. And making this stretch of El Camino a Koreatown recognizable to those outside the local Korean community may have a beneficial, long-term impact. “Generally, I like the name ‘Koreatown,’” says Elise Han, a local supporter of restaurants like SGD Tofu House. “It helps make Korean culture and Korean restaurants more interesting and approachable to those who aren’t Korean.” Another Koreatown restaurant regular, Jongwon Lim, says that though Koreatown may lack a sense of cohesiveness, he appreciates the neighborhood’s atmosphere and its food. “The fact that the restaurants are all on this one street and relatively close together helps make them more accessible to anyone who visits this area.”
Over the next few years, Councilmember Kevin Park and the SVKAF plan to establish a civic center in Koreatown, which will serve as a stronghold for congregation and celebration. But for now, Koreatown has its beloved, welcoming restaurants. And though they may still be in recovery from the dire effects of the pandemic, there is growth in their future, and thus in the future of this Koreatown. In mid-July, Lee and his team at Chungdam opened a more casual Korean barbecue spot called Seorai, open into the late hours of the night to cater to younger visitors and party crowds. Separately, Shin opened a new business in the same building as Silla called Kote Haus, which serves a slate of Koreanized tapas, bar foods, and booze.
“These restaurants have always been a big source of community support,” says SVKAF’s Yeonsook Park. “They’ll continue to serve as outlets to teach future generations about Korean culture as we work toward a bigger sense of unification for the community.”