Kan Poong Saewoo: Wet Fried Shrimp; Galbi: BBQ Beef Short Ribs; Kimchee
Occupation: Director of Marketing
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Playground
Reviewed Playground: Wednesday February 6, 2008
Most Americans think of BBQ meats when they think of Korean cuisine, but Playground will make you think again. There is no grill-at-your-table-my-clothes-smell-like-BBQ here. Instead, you’ll leave with a taste of a typical casual Korean bar/restaurant, including Korean pop songs playing on the TVs hung on the wall, and maybe even a bit of private karaoke in one of the three rooms for rent (reserved at $30/per hour) above the restaurant. I love Playground for its typical Korean quirkiness, as well as the tasty food, soju cocktails, and friendly service.
Playground is tucked away in Japantown, inconspicuously located above a Denny’s on Post Street. The food is very flavorful and has a very authentic Korean bar/restaurant scene, catering to a younger Asian crowd. The staff are always smiling, polite, and are there to make you feel at home. I typically start with an appetizer of “Korean seafood pancakes,” which are made with mung beans or flour and full of seafood served with a soy sauce based dipping sauce. As with most Korean dishes, these are meant to be shared with your friend. Wash them down with yogurt soju cocktails, served in a carafe (no martini glasses) and shared in small shot glasses. Soju is to Koreans what sake is to Japanese.
Our “panchan,” complimentary side dishes that range from day to day but always includes kimchee, are then placed on the table without you having to order it. There are hundreds of variations of kimchee, but Playground always has a delicious version of the classic, perfectly seasoned kimchee: cold pickled napa cabbage that has been lovingly soaked in vinegar, red pepper, and garlic. To me, good quality panchan is a test of what to expect from a Korean restaurant. Enjoy the panchan alone and as an accompaniment to your main dishes to add more texture and compliment flavors. The corn with melted cheese panchan is always a hit and is quite tasty.
Recently, my friends and I ordered a few main dishes and soups to share, including soon to bu ji-gae, which is a type of fiery hot stone “ji-gae” stew/soup with soft tofu, clams, and a Korean-style miso base soup. This time around it was a bit spicier than I like, so I mellowed the ji gae by eating the stew with some rice. We also ordered a steaming bowl of mandoo duk gook, one of my favorite soups. It’s a comforting, clear, beef-based soup with rice dumplings called “duk” — pressed rice cakes that are sliced into the soup — along with mandoo, a Korean version of pot stickers, with a swirl of eggs “dropped” into the soup to add richness to the soup. The mandoo was perfect, with just the right amount of pork filling stuffed inside a thin wonton-like wrapper. We also shared the dolsot bibimbap, a hot stone bowl full of rice, chopped vegetables, marinated meat and a fried egg. I like to add some gojujang sauce (red pepper sauce that looks like ketchup) and mix the bimbimpap together and eat with a spoonful with some kimchee. We also had the simple and comforting bowl of jajangmyun, a northern Chinese noodle dish with black bean sauce that Koreans have adopted as their own.
Unable to finish our food, our nice waitress brought over our check, and we squealed in delight on our bargain of the day, and left feeling happy and a bit more Korean.
Occupation: Environmental Engineer
Location: Union City
Favorite Restaurant: Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen
Reviewed Playground: Friday February 8, 2008
I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical going out to dine at the Playground. For one thing, I Do Not do karaoke, and for another thing I had never had Korean food before. I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of Korean food as being bad Chinese food that stank because of kimchee. I must wholeheartedly apologize for my prejudices.
I had a fantastic time at the Playground during a Friday evening meal. I went with a group of four friends that included one kimchee lover who promised to help with menu interpretation. He would have liked to help with the menu, but unfortunately the print on the menu is so small only those with young eyes and 20/20 vision could read their menu at night. Fortunately, the menu had pictures and my other friend had a small flashlight on her keychain. Also the server made a few food suggestions, since we admitted that some of us were Korean food virgins.
We ordered 4 entrees and 1 noodle dish for all of us the share, family style. The entrees were the grilled beef short ribs (galbi, 13.95), barbequed boneless chicken (dahk gui, $13.95), wet fried shrimp in spicy garlic sauce (kan poong saewoo, $14.95) and pancake with green onion and assorted seafood (haemul pajeon, $11.95). The noodle dish we ordered was fresh homemade noodles with a black bean sauce (jaengban jjaing, $11.95). I don’t feel qualified to judge Korean food at the Playground in term of its authenticity as Korean food. I can share that we all thoroughly enjoyed the food at the Playground and had a remarkable dining experience. The restaurant is so welcoming and accommodating. They even moved one of their booths around so my friend’s 6’7 husband could be seated more comfortably. The food portions were generous and all of the food was brought out to our table as it was completed, so everything was hot.
Things got off to a good start with the barley tea, cheesy corn appetizer, and condiments that were brought to the table in advance of the entrees. Who ever had the idea to combine cheese with whole kernel corn should have a star named after them. While it may sound strange, it is actually quite tasty. And the melted cheese makes it easier to eat corn with chopsticks. The condiments included kimchee, pickled vegetables, fish cakes, and a few other items that escape me. A word about kimchee. All I had ever heard about kimchee is that it is fermented cabbage that stinks and can sometimes be lethally hot. So, I thought a gas mask would be required to be in the same room with kimchee. I was wrong. Not only did I taste the kimchee, I liked it. I ate kimchee by itself and also combined it with some of the entrees to flavor things up a bit.
The group’s favorite entrée was the wet fried shrimp. These were huge tempura style shrimp with a light garlic sauce. Be warned, those sliced green things on top of the shrimp aren’t bell peppers. My friend found that out the hard way, when she accidentally swallowed one. Apparently they are very hot. The only dish I did not care for was the noodles with black bean sauce. It was fun cutting the noodles with scissors, but in my opinion they occupied space on my very small plate (actually more like a saucer) that could have been more suitably occupied by one of the yummy entrees.
In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed dining at the Playground. I liked the casual, laid-back style of the restaurant and think it would be worth re-visiting the next time I find myself in San Francisco in need of a well prepared, good value meal.
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Capannina
Reviewed Playground: Friday February 8, 2008
How do you describe a restaurant? With Playground, it’s hard to know where to start. Here’s what I mean.
What can you say about a Korean restaurant above Denny’s in Japantown?
How rare it is to walk into a restaurant and find yourself instantly bathed in neon light.
I’d say that Playground is a perfect example of a Cheap On Cheerful except it really isn’t particularly cheap.
If you’re spending an evening at Playground, you have to make a major choice long before you see the menu. Do you want to eat? Or do you want to shut yourself and your friends in one of the upstairs karaoke rooms along with a lot of alcohol and some snacks, and shout along to videos in English or Korean?
What can you say about a restaurant named Playground anyway?
That last one is the real challenge. Playground is basically an under-30s hangout with pretty good food, pretty good service, a pretty loud crowd, and four flat screen TVs — three of them featuring dancing Korean cheerleaders and variety shows. The whole thing bathed in that weird neon light. And bilingual karaoke chambers are one flight up. It’s odd. It’s distinctly odd. But popular. When I got there at 7 on a Friday night, I worried that, except for a Korean party in the far corner and me, the place would be stone empty. By the time I left at 9:30, there wasn’t a free seat in the house. And, with the exception of a black family and a couple of Asian businessmen, the only ones over 30 were at my table.
I only had one dish I disliked, jaengban jjaing, noodles overwhelmed with black bean sauce, and when the kind waitress saw that it was less than a hit at our table, she whisked it away and replaced it with a variation where we ladled your own sauce on our own noodles. She even provided a pair of scissors to cut said noodles, which were the length of San Francisco fire hoses.
Playground describes itself as Korean Fusion cooking, which means a strong Chinese influence. Indeed, the kan poong saewoo (heavily breaded sweet and sour shrimp) could have come from Ruby Foo; showy, tasty and the opposite of subtle. The mool mandoo steamed dumplings were flavorsome, garlicky and considerably daintier. Some of the galbi, BBQ short ribs, were more rib than meat. If you were lost in the forest with only galbi to eat, starvation could be an issue. The dahk gui — BBQ chicken — was tender, juicy, and the best dish of the evening. The night I was there, Playground ran out of one of its two or three desserts; we shared a yoghurt ice cream, described as “a hip and happening dessert from LA” that tasted an awful lot like many a frozen yoghurt cone I’d had in many a less happening locale. The too-sweet Fruity Pebbles on the side didn’t add an ounce of flavor or hipness. Despite the neon, the TVs, and the mixed quality of the dishes, I kinda liked the place. It was different from my usual haunts. The servers were friendly and helpful. The patrons, who by 8:30 were a nice mix of the races of San Francisco, were having a fine time. Would I rush back? Nah. Was I glad I went? Sure thing.