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Albany residents can revel in globalization on Solano Avenue at a new restaurant that makes it easy to experiment with one of Korea’s staple dishes, the rice bowl.
Business partners Jessica Oh and Chi Moon on Feb. 15. The eatery offers patrons a taste of Korean food in a welcoming and accessible way.
At Bowl’d, Oh and Moon said they are experimenting with how to best fuse traditional Korean cuisine with modern American fine dining. Unlike Chinese and Japanese cuisine, which are familiar to many diners, Korean food isn’t especially well known. Oh said she wanted to overcome whatever barriers may inhibit diners from trying unfamiliar flavors.
“I call it Korean-American because that’s what I am,” Oh said. “Half of me is very traditional, and half of me is contemporary, modern.”
There has been in a push in recent years in South Korea to globalize the country’s cuisine. An article in the Korean Times, published in October 2008, discussed the government’s efforts to expand the number of Korean restaurants in the world to 40,000 by 2017.
Oh wrote a report to the South Korean government five months ago detailing her suggestions for how to globalize hansik (Korean cuisine). She pointed to the U.S.’s only large-scale rice bowl chain, Bibigo, explaining that it still hasn’t reconciled how to deliver Korean food in an accessible way, mainly due to the number of plates involved.
When I visited Bowl’d on a recent Sunday, I went with the staple dish: a rice bowl packed with mung beans, spinach, carrots, mushrooms and spicy pork, topped with a fried egg sunny-side up. Bibimbop (bee-bim-bap), which translates into “mixed rice,” is a giant bowl packed with veggies, rice and whatever protein you want to go with it.
Aside from this big bowl of delicious grub, Bowl’d also delivers a range of traditional side dishes, or banchan, which are tailored to how many people are dining and what entree was ordered. Because I went with a spicy theme, I got kim-chi (pickled cabbage), radishes soaked in chili paste (yummy and hot), fish cakes, radish soup, tofu salad and crunchy baby anchovies cooked in brown sugar (surprisingly good). It was too much food for me to eat in one sitting, but it offered a full spectrum of flavors: spicy, sweet and savory.
You also get endless barley tea infused with Solomon’s Seal, a tasty non-caffeinated tea Koreans traditionally drink.
Oh was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to Oakland with her family 23 years ago. Her family opened a Korean barbecue restaurant called Ohgane with locations in Oakland and Dublin. It was there where she first discovered her desire to introduce her culture to more Americans.
Oh and Moon did their research before making an investment in Bowl’d. Moon said they went on a tour across the country where they tried Korean food of all varieties to refine how they would approach it.
Moon, a former manager at Ohgane and long-time graphic and interior designer, said they had planned to wait about five months before opening Bowl’d, but then the space opened up in Albany. Everything moved at warp speed after that: escrow to purchase the property closed in November, renovations were done, permits were signed, and the grand opening was in February.
Oh said Albany was on her radar because of its small, inclusive community. She felt it was a good place to launch the restaurant, one that may be more open to trying out the cuisine than some others. Albany already hosts one Korean eatery, called , farther west on Solano, though many of the East Bay’s Korean restaurants are concentrated on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland.
The largest barrier so far has been cost: the expense to renovate the property and the price of ingredients for Korean food. Oh said lots of fresh produce and ingredients shipped in from Korea—sesame oil, bean paste and chili paste—increase the the restaurant’s costs.
An entree runs from $12 to $18, but the price also includes a number of side dishes. That hasn’t stopped many curious diners from checking out the restaurant. Oh and Moon are working on a way to offer a less expensive lunch-time menu, on the advice of customers. And the food and ambiance are well worth a visit, even two.
“We wanted to create an environment where people can be intrigued and want to learn about Korean food,” Oh said, “and not be overwhelmed by the process.”
Oh said every step in her life has led her here. Years working at her parent’s Korean restaurant, time learning about nutrition, and studying at a culinary arts academy all inched her closer to opening Bowl’d.
“I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else,” Oh said. “This is what I wanted to do from day one.”