Korean fusion menu is magical at Gung Ho 

click to enlarge Gung Ho’s pork belly muffin — with tender meat, spicy sauce, slaw and egg — is almost as good as the Korean fried chicken. - BETH LABERGE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Gung Ho’s pork belly muffin — with tender meat, spicy sauce, slaw and egg — is almost as good as the Korean fried chicken.

Last summer, the South Korean-ish pop-up Seoul Patch served lunch at a sushi joint near my house. One menu item — the fried chicken “sando” — became a problem for me.

I’d open my fridge, and everything seemed boring and sad. Despite fleeting good intentions (“Maybe I’ll saute up that Swiss chard.”), I kept heading back to Seoul Patch.

That sandwich was better than the sum of its parts. At its core, it was just a heaping mound of boneless fried chicken thighs served with daikon slaw and spicy-sweet gochujang sauce.

The Bay Area is lousy with fried chicken sandwiches, but this one had a magnetic draw, perhaps a bit of voodoo, that kept pulling me back.

Like many pop-ups, Seoul Patch built the fan base for an eventual brick-and-mortar. Now chef Eric Ehler has a 50-seat Design district spot called Gung Ho in the shadows of the Death Star (er, Zynga headquarters).

I know I’m supposed to approach new places with an unbiased, neutral air, but that sandwich had made me an Ehler fanboy.

I actually asked a competitor (Hint: her name rhymes with Banana Froth) if I could get first crack at reviewing Gung Ho.

Over two visits, I cut a large swath through the menu, navigating bibimbap and ramyun and rice cakes like a champ. Let’s start in the “not bad” column.

A kewpie Caesar salad was subtly tweaked with nori salt and sesame croutons, giving it an oceanic Asian cast. Butter miso noodles came in a gingery broth loaded with crab chunks, but didn’t leave much of an imprint on the palate.

I liked the texture of the roasted rice cakes, which had more snap than I’ve come to expect from this squishy Korean staple, but I wanted more of the advertised spiciness.

Gung Ho does a nice pickle plate notable for its range of textures, bursts of sweetness and unusual veggies (burdock root, celery heart, romanesco, etc.)

Speaking of romanesco, try it roasted with anchovy bread crumbs in XO sauce vinaigrette, a somewhat intriguing rendition.

Some might say the twice-fried chicken, crisp and sesame-tinged, was better than just good. And truly, I could find no fault here. Maybe I’ve just reached a fried chicken saturation point.

Or maybe I’m fickle and unpredictable, because I still was blown away by that tender KFC (Korean fried chicken) sandwich. I think it has magic potion in it.

Running a close second for sandwiches was the pork belly muffin. In this wink to the pork bun, a slab of tender belly was served with “xx sauce” (essentially a spicy aioli) and apple slaw on an English muffin. Demand has been feverish for this one, and with reason.

As I think on the many things I tried, there were no real stinkers. Even the steak bibimbap, while lacking crispy bits of fried rice for texture, carried enough flavor to compensate.

And despite the limp noodles in the ramyun (Ehler says they source them from a local noodle master), everything else was spot-on: rich, umami-heavy broth, perfectly soft-boiled egg, etc.

In fact, the only thing I didn’t dig was Gung Ho’s interior, a bit ungainly and odd. Ehler says they revamped the space from the Los Angeles-style sushi joint it once was, but there’s an unpleasant lounge feel that won’t go away.
I don’t really care, though. Ehler’s food would triumph even if it were served in an Olive Garden.

Gung Ho

  • Location: 680 Eighth St. (at Brannan Street), S.F.
  • Contact: (415) 864-2771, www.gunghosf.com
  • Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 8:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays
  • Price range: $6 to $15
  • Recommended dishes: Pickle plate ($6), ramyun ($11), bibimbap ($12), Korean fried chicken sando ($11), pork belly muffin ($9)
  • Credit cards: All major
  • Reservations: Accepted

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Jesse Hirsch

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Monday, Sep 15, 2014

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