Tasty Korean fare in slightly surrealistic setting

Japantown's newest Korean restaurant strives for an elegant dining experience, but in its heart of hearts, Ssisso is a tavern, best for long nights of drinking and recovery from those nights.

The first half of the menu seems geared toward the thirsty. The portions are generous, the selection of fried things large.

This being a Korean-American spot, owned by the same family behind the karaoke bar Playground, jalapeño tempura (Korean jalapeño poppers) have a place on the menu, next to more classic Korean fare like geem mari, glass noodles wrapped in seaweed and fried.

I tried the Ssisso chicken, a starter that could easily feed two for dinner. It's Ssisso's version of Korean fried chicken, and I found it sticky with sauce, but still crunchy.

On the latter half of the menu, there are at least two excellent hangover cures.

The samgyetang, a soup in which a chicken is presented whole, is for nights that have left your insides in tatters. Simmered for four to five hours with red dates, ginseng and chestnuts, the resulting broth smacks of health and chicken flavor. It's also a beautiful soup — the chicken's breast is snipped apart with scissors to reveal a fist-sized lump of sticky rice inside the cavity.

If last night's slings and arrows have left only the mildest of scratches, then the kimchee bokkumbap is for you — fried rice, crusted at the bottom by a stone plate, topped with a wok-fried egg and crisped at the edges, its yolk still running. The fried rice, made spicy and crunchy with kimchee, and salty-sweet with bacon, is a one-two punch of texture and flavor, utterly satisfying and worth returning for.

Also haunting were the garlic noodles with crispy tofu. The garlic soy sauce was well-balanced and not too sweet, and the dense, curly texture of the ramen noodles was pronounced. The steamed broccoli was a welcome foil to the deep-fried tofu, which bore a delicate, nongreasy crust.

Service is casual and lacking in experience. One night, food and drink seemed a long time coming, and the server laughed when my dining companion requested something. Matters improved the second night, when service was prompt and courteous.

Banchan comes with every meal — small dishes of bacon kimchee and other cooked or preserved vegetables — all tasty. Bacon kimchee may seem cutesy in a city already overly inundated with bacon doughnuts, bacon chocolate and other things pork, but here it smacks of a Korean-American upbringing — it's a family recipe. That said, the banchan selection was a little small — only six dishes, though refills are given freely.

Ssisso is a cavernous modern space of stark black and white. The dim, artificial light lends a sense of continual twilight, soothing for bloodshot, light-sensitive eyes, and conducive to potentially limitless drinking — it's hard to tell how much time has gone by. There's K-pop bubbling through the sound system, game shows and sports matches projected onto the wall, soju cocktails and beer towers — table kegs that look like bongs.

Its two guises, that of light-hearted tavern and more formal restaurant, can seem a bit incongruous to some; the experience of eating in a gleaming room while “Jeopardy” is projected above you is slightly surreal. But to me, Japantown is surreal, and Ssisso fits right in.

Ssisso

Location: 1700A Post St. (near Fillmore Street ), S.F.

Contact: (415) 441-1522, ssissosf.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays-Saturdays

Price range: $7.95 to $24.95

Recommended dishes: Ssisso chicken ($15.95), kimchee bokkumbap ($12.95), garlic noodles ($14.95), samgyetang ($17.95)

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted but not necessary

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