Below you’ll find the latest review from my SF Burger Examiner column. Featured restaurant? Pan-asian NAMU in the Richmond.
Tucked away in the Inner Richmond, Balboa Street showcases a treasure trove of Asian restaurants that beckon diners inside with the promise of authentic eats.
Normally not a fan of Pan-Asian restaurants, I was happily surprised with the offerings of Namu, the hip spot owned by the Lee brothers – Dennis, David and Daniel. The Lees’ uniform of choice reflects their laid-back, tradition-challenging vibe, with straight billed ball caps, dark t-shirts, jeans and kicks replacing traditional restaurant garb.
Namu has been experiencing buzz levels lately that rival a boy pop band. I witnessed their rather large following at last week’s pork-centric Cochon 555 at the Fairmont. Palate-pleasing concoctions that diverge from commonplace Asian-fusion have been earning the siblings accolades since Namu’s opening over 3 years ago. The restaurant’s celebrity has only been accelerated by their presence at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, where hoards of visitors line up to sample the satisfying bulgogi tacos. Yet I have a feeling the fame also has something to do with the fact that the Lee brothers are “just that cool,” each of them having a mellow, unassuming style that echoes the values of family, friendship and especially ingenuity.
Namu may look a bit out of place in the quiet Richmond residential neighborhood, but once you step in the doors you’ll quickly relax into the casual scene that oscillates between Asian chic and edgy flair. Slate, steel and wood décor converge harmoniously. A mix of jazz, hip hop and urban beats fills the air. Macro-setting pictures of fish, clams, eels and shrimp adorn the walls, and intimate wooden tables sparsely populate the space – allowing the Lee trifecta to easily make room for the occasional DJ show. For a front-row view of kitchen action, consider sitting at one of the stools by the long, wooden bar in the middle of the restaurant. Talk about sustainable, the bar top is made from a reclaimed cypress tree from Golden Gate Park and is the inspiration for the restaurant’s name, as “namu” means tree in Korean.
Kanpai or Gun Bae?
Whether you say “kanpai” in Japanese or “gun bae” in Korean, prepare to say “cheers” when you survey the bar menu at Namu. An array of wine, Korean soju, and ample sake types including daiginjo, ginjo, and junmai tempt you to forget that 12 step program. Beware the soju cocktails; the slightly sweet blood orange and fresh pomelo grapefruit soju mix flows down the hatchet as smoothly as a glass of water. Namu does not disappoint on the sake front either. The Masumi Okuden, a junmai Korean sake, was served piping hot and stayed that way by resting in a hot water bath.
The Namu menu changes every other day, flexing to what is available from local markets and purveyors. Namu appeals to your inner butcher by buying an entire animal and then breaking it down in-house, making sure to use all parts of the carcass, from head to tail in true culinary fashion. They source their meats from well-respected ranchers like Marin Sun Farms and Prather Ranch.
The chefs are adventurous – a characteristic easily spotted with just a single glance at the menu. As I reviewed it my stomach grumbled thinking about specialties like uni shiso tempura, hamachi wrapped in banana leaf, Korean fried chicken, and of course the Korean style burger. Each meal at Namu begins with a sample of traditional Korean style banchan; small plates shared communally, similar to Asian tapas. Some standout dishes include the ever-popular kimchee - fermented napa cabbage with a load of garlic and spicy paste. Namu’s version is spicier than other kimchee I’ve had in the SF. Bear witness to the commitment to using seasonal ingredients by sampling the pickled green garlic.
Burgers abound in San Francisco, but outside of Namu you’ll have difficulty tracking down a Korean style burger. The beef burger is served on a pain de mie bun; the toasted, buttered roll quickly becoming a favorite starch option. This bun backs down to no burger; standing up with confidence and durability to its meaty partner. Unfortunately, the burger meat, while flavorful and of good quality, did not quite live up to its end of the bargain. The meat was so finely ground that it resembled something closer to meat paste or pate. My taste buds prefer a courser ground burger that risks putting a bit of hair on one’s chest, or just satisfying a hearty appetite. Additionally, there was a temperature issue with the meat. The burger came out warm instead of hot, a slightly distracting fact.
On a brighter note, the Asian-inspired toppings showcase Namu’s culinary creativity. Wasabi-infused mayo is a step up from your fridge’s Best Foods. Radish fans will celebrate the thinly-sliced pickled daikon and kaiware (daikon sprouts). Soy-glazed onions offer a bit of sweetness to balance out the crunchy daikon, but the real gem is the optional kimchee relish.
When I was four years old my father ordered a plate of kimchee and offered me a taste. I ended up eating the entire plate…and then three more orders. Apparently, the entire Korean restaurant put down their chopsticks to stare at the little hapa-haoli girl eating plate after plate of spicy, pickled cabbage. As such, you can imagine my excitement at the potential for kimchee relish. The flavor met all my expectations. I just wish Namu had more generous in its serving. The inventive garnish risked being overwhelmed by the other flavors.
While the burger was not quite the Pan-Asian masterpiece anticipated, there were a couple other dishes on the menu that I will definitely be returning for.
First and foremost, any Namu patron must order the Korean bulgogi tacos. Heaps of thinly sliced, juicy beef are piled high on top of nori seaweed sheets; a creative substitution for more traditional tortillas. White rice, daikon radish, kimchee salsa and a kalbi demi glace top this protein-laden dish. The nori sheets are delicate and may not survive the load of ingredients. However, the tacos kill it in the flavor category – not overly spicy but zesty, savory, with just the right amount of pickled goodness.
The two other evening favorites were the shitake dumplings and ramen noodles. The dumplings handmade quality comes through in the very first bite, softly complimented by the shitake essence and mild dashi broth. Grab a spoon and slurp up that broth, it’s so good you will not want to let a drop go to waste.
The ramen noodles are in short supply, with only 6 portions made each night so order them quickly! The noodles bathe in a pork miso broth and seduce vegetarians to abandon their cause and embrace the pork; or in this case the slow-braised pork shoulder. Seasonal vegetables like bok choy and finely chopped leeks add a bit of green to this soupy, comforting meal. The dish’s shining star is the fried poached egg. At first glance it resembles a large tempura prawn, but once you cut through the browned, crispy outer shell, the runny egg seeps into the broth providing an extra dimension to an already stellar flavor. The burger may not have won best in my book but Namu’s other inventive offerings make me confident that the Lee brothers will be long-term restaurant contenders, and I plan to return. I think even Kim Jong Il would approve.
Address: 439 Balboa St @ 6th Ave
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