Food & Drink

What Makes A Koreatown?

San Francisco Korean Spring BBQ, the first wooden charcoal grill KBBQ restaurant to open in the Bay Area, lists over 60 dishes on its menu. Cathy Park

In Santa Clara’s suburban Koreatown, restaurants navigate the push-and-pull of mass appeal and embracing tradition

El Camino Real is a quintessential California road, spanning more than 600 miles. In the Bay Area, the street is notorious for running the length of the Peninsula and can take travelers from the Mission in San Francisco all the way to San Jose in one straight shot.

Strip malls are scattered along El Camino Real, housing large chain groceries, pizza parlors, and discount retail stores. But in a particular set of strip malls in a small stretch of Santa Clara, there are dozens of Korean-owned businesses — among them a collection of restaurants that have put themselves on the map as a Koreatown, albeit one that’s markedly quieter and more dispersed than the Koreatowns in Los Angeles or New York.

A strip mall on the El Camino Real filled with Korean businesses Cathy Park

Los Angeles’s Koreatown is home to a fairly large group of Koreans — more than 20 percent of the neighborhood’s population. But the Korean population in Santa Clara County has always been relatively small. In 1980, Koreans made up just 0.5 percent of the county’s population. By 1990 that number grew to about 1 percent. Today, the Santa Clara Korean community continues to remain steady at around 3 percent of the county’s population. Still, there are myriad Korean restaurants to serve the community and, in recent months, prompted by the limited number of Korean customers and 18 months of pandemic-fueled restrictions, many are reinventing themselves to serve more diners and forge an identity as a suburban Koreatown unlike any other.

While Korean barbecue restaurants may have sparked the initial appeal of Santa Clara’s Koreatown in the 1980s, today’s restaurants run the gamut, cooking foods that reflect what’s served at feasts in Korea — tofu stews, blood sausages, spicy rice cakes, braised short ribs, and black bean noodles. Korean Spring BBQ, one of the older guards and the first wooden charcoal grill Korean barbecue restaurant to open in the Bay Area, lists more than 60 dishes, while Jang Su Jang, another highly trafficked spot focused on meats and soups, boasts over 75 menu items.

This expansiveness was likely born out of the competitiveness that has long existed here. As the number of Koreatown restaurants has grown steadily over the past decades, restaurateurs have remained hesitant to stick to specialty items, instead presenting an expansive selection of dishes so customers won’t need to search elsewhere for what they want.

Eric Shin, the co-founder of Korean fusion spot Restaurant Silla, noticed the fierce sense of rivalry when he entered the Koreatown restaurant scene in 2019. “Many restaurant owners and managers know each other but we each operate in our own kingdoms,” he says. “We don’t really interact much, but in the end, I’m hopeful that we can form a deeper sense of community since we all have the same goal.”

In recent years, restaurateurs like Shin have taken active steps to find new customers and introduce them to Korean cuisine,

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