The scents of frying garlic and ginger float on the air around Outer Sunset restaurant Hotline, open on the corner of Taraval Street and 46th Avenue since earlier this year. Inside, a steam table displays trays of giant prawns wrapped in batter and tossed in a sticky soy glaze, cubes of tofu turned scarlet by a fiery combo of gochugaru and fermented chili, and threads of vermicelli noodles tangled with rice and vegetables.
The dishes — kkanpoong saewoo, mapa dubu, japchae bap, and more — may or may not be recognizable to some. But they elicit strong memories of family dinners and post-kiddie soccer game lunches for Eddo Kim, who owns and operates Hotline alongside his wife Clara Lee. Both identify as Korean-American and say they grew up eating this style of Korean-Chinese hybrid food called junghwa. With Hotline, they hope to make it available to anyone looking for a taste of nostalgia as well as to introduce it to diners who may not have been aware of junghwa food before. “Is it Korean? Is it Chinese?” Kim says customers sometimes ask. “I think for us to have those conversations has been good.”
Bay Area food lovers may know the couple from their first food-related business, Queens, the Korean market the couple opened on 9th Avenue just south of Golden Gate Park in 2019. Kim says the couple was sipping glasses of wine at Oakland wine bar Ordinaire when they first discussed the idea for Hotline. “We were craving it, and Clara, she loves cooking it,” Kim says with a laugh, referring to junghwa food. The Korean–Chinese cuisine traces its roots back to the port city of Incheon, home to the only official Chinatown in Korea, Kim explains. There, Chinese immigrants to Korea began to do what immigrants often do: blend local flavors into the foods they were already accustomed to eating. The result is dishes like tang soo yook, a version of sweet and sour pork, and gan jjajang, a textural delight starring minced pork and fragrant black bean paste.
Also key is the style of dining, a pick-and-choose model Lee remembers appealing to a family where everyone wants to taste a little bit of something different. That’s why Hotline’s combo plates let diners choose anywhere from one to three entrees plus a choice of either fried rice or japchae bap, stir-fried glass noodles with veggies. For anyone who’s ever ordered a combo plate at Panda Express, the format will be familiar. “It’s what we grew up eating,” Kim says. “And it’s the way Clara and I experienced junghwa restaurants”
The steam table options won’t rotate often, Kim says, since the menu is less about swapping in seasonal dishes and ingredients as it is about bringing classics to customers. The former Boavida kitchen now houses two woks for frying big batches of prawns and battered pork and serves as a prep space for the team, which is making everything down to the hot mustard and pickled daikon in-house. The menu offers a few vegan or vegetarian-friendly options, including the spicy mapa dubu and the crispy mandoo, which come stuffed with Impossible pork. On the beverage side, they’re serving beer and wine on tap — and natural wine fans should take care to check out the bottles stocked in the fridge, which can be either enjoyed on-site or taken to-go.
Cooking and serving hundreds of pounds of fried pork a week has been a new challenge for the couple, Kim says. Hotline is the couple’s first proper restaurant, though they’ve been serving lunch at Queens for a number of months. Both Kim and Lee ended up in the food business somewhat unintentionally; they were living in New York and working in education before they moved to San Francisco, where they felt the Korean dining options left something to be desired. Lee started cooking, sharing her food first with friends and family, before eventually starting an e-commerce site and delivering food to customers.
“But eventually we just couldn’t drive fast enough,” Kim remembers, so they started doing pop-ups at Birba wine bar in Hayes Valley before landing the brick-and-mortar space Queens currently calls home.
Kim says Queens, which sells a selection of Korean food products and prepared foods, is a different experience altogether. At the superette, the couple and their team can educate customers about Korean pantry staples, rare kitchen products, and the ins-and-outs of soju. At Hotline, there’s less time for one-on-one conversations — but also the potential to bring junghwa food to a far wider audience. Eventually, Kim says they’d love to open additional Hotline locations around the Bay Area; but even with the single location they’re able to offer pick and delivery through DoorDash, which means diners throughout San Francisco can have yang jang pi, a cold mung bean jelly noodles salad dressed in a nose-clearing hot mustard vinaigrette, for lunch or dinner.
It’s exciting to see a handful of Korean food makers and restaurants gaining visibility around the Bay Area recently, Kim says. In November 2021, Korean-American chef Corey Lee — who earned four Michelin stars across his three San Francisco restaurants Benu, In Situ (now closed), and Monsieur Benjamin — debuted San Ho Wan, an upscale Korean barbecue restaurant in the Mission. Over in the East Bay, chef Steve Joo presses fresh Korean-style tofu, or dooboo, along with banchan starring local vegetables at his casual deli Joodooboo. Of course, there’s long been a bustling Korean dining scene in Santa Clara, and a number of Bay Area restaurants have interwoven junghwa dishes into their menus (for example, Kim names Great China in Berkeley and San Francisco’s San Tung) but there’s a growing sense of community around Korean food in the Bay. “We just want to be a part of that narrative,” Kim says.
Hotline (3560 Taraval Street) is open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Monday.