The idea for Ilcha, a new-ish Korean restaurant in the Marina, came about as many would-be dream restaurants do: with two friends traveling, eating and drinking their way through a new city, and falling in love with a restaurant only to wonder why they can’t find a similar dining experience at home. The difference is that unlike most people, Kummi Kim and Hilwin Wong came back to San Francisco and did something about it. Earlier this spring the duo took one week to flip the former Nabe hot pot restaurant space on Lombard Street into Ilcha, a casual Korean restaurant with a deep selection of Korean spirits and beers.
Kim, whose mom owns Tenderloin neighborhood gem the Lucky Pig, says she and Wong met more than 20 years ago through mutual friends. For the past couple of decades they’ve stayed in touch and when Kim was living abroad Wong would come to visit. The friends explored cities together including New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. “We’re always eating and drinking,” Kim remembers. In particular, they enjoyed the casual restaurants in Seoul where customers can get great Korean food and a selection of Korean spirits ranging from soju to makgeolli, a cloudy and lightly sparkling rice wine. These “Korean gastropubs” exist in U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles, but aren’t common in San Francisco, Kim and Wong say.
Ilcha, which means “first round” in Korean, hopes to fill that hole with a concise food menu and impressive list of Korean spirits. The partners say they hope it’ll be a place for diners to get drinks before dinner or dinner before heading out to drink. Maybe both before hitting a karaoke bar. “In Korea, [ilcha] is kind of almost how we would reference ‘happy hour’ here,” Kim explains. “So people would say, ‘Where do you wanna go for the first round?’ It’s a word people use around drinking or eating.”
Kim says she tapped her mom to help with the food menu, so fans of the Lucky Pig’s extra crunchy Korean fried chicken will be glad to hear they’re using the same recipe at Ilcha. The soy cured shrimp, served over egg yolk rice, has also been popular with early diners. Since Nabe was a hot pot restaurant, and there are still a number of regular customers in the neighborhood, Wong says they had to keep a couple of hot pots on the menu including a spicy ramen version with kimchi, Spam, and American cheese, and a wagyu beef bulgogi option with mushrooms, japchae, rice cakes, and chrysanthemum.
On the sool, or drinks, side the duo have pulled together a list of Korean hits. They’re particularly excited about Seoul Night, a premium soju distilled 100% from plums, and Red Monkey, made from red yeast rice to give “raspberry and strawberry notes,” Kim describes. The list also offers several chungju, or clear rice wines, and a handful of Korean beers including Cass, Oriental Brewery, and Terra. They’ve also stocked four brews from the Bay Area’s own Dokkaebier, a self-described “Asian-inspired craft brewery.”
They didn’t do much to the space between shuttering Nabe and reopening as Ilcha but they did have a friend paint a mural of a woman in a hanbok, or traditional Korean dress, on one wall. Kim and Wong say they’re planning a grand opening celebration for June 8 but are still getting their feet under them with the new restaurant. As they settle in they expect to add more menu items, expand the drink list, and eventually extend the hours.
Ilcha (2151 Lombard Street) is open Wednesday to Sunday from 6-10 p.m.