Sarang Bang3631 Southport Dr.
Sacramento, CA 95826
Sarang Bang may be the least open-looking open restaurant ever. It’s located in a Rosemont-area strip mall adjacent to an equally closed-looking dive bar called the Mushroom Lounge. The restaurant’s sign is dark, the windows are tinted—an open sign is lit, but this is hard for a first-time visitor to trust. A peep through the glass reveals, however, that there is movement and life inside. In fact, Sarang Bang doesn’t open until 5 p.m. but stays open until 2 a.m. every day except Sunday, when it’s merely open until midnight.
Once inside, this Korean restaurant’s hospitable atmosphere belies its sketchy exterior. The high-backed, close-packed booths paired with individual lights over each table create a cozy, socked-in feeling. The penned graffiti that covers every booth reveals Sarang Bang to be something of a teen hangout.
My teenaged days are long behind me, but I can report that at 8 p.m. on a weeknight the clientele here mostly comprises quietly chatting adults.
The servers here are courteous and friendly, and the meal proceeds at a measured pace, which provides the opportunity to relax and settle in. The meal begins, as is customary, with small dishes of banchan. There are three types of kimchi, all pretty low on the spice-o-meter; lightly sweet, peppered fish balls; wasabi-dressed broccoli; steamed bean-sprouts salad; elegant, lightly pickled cucumber slices dotted with sesame seeds; and, oddly, macaroni salad. The elbow-macaroni salad yields surprises: tiny diced pieces of apple and fish cake, all drenched in sweet mayo. On another night, the macaroni salad is replaced with a russet-potato salad which, thankfully, is served sans apple.
Pajeon (Korean scallion-and-egg pancakes) often prove a disappointment at some restaurants because the interior is thicker than the edges and is, invariably, gummy. Not so with Sarang Bang’s version, a perfectly flat, huge rectangle cut into handy pieces, topped with crunchy panko. It’s hands down the best I’ve ever tried.
Sarang Bang’s gul bo sam is the real Korean taco, no food truck required. Lightly steamed napa cabbage serves as a scoop for pork, spicy-and-sweet zucchini, and thin-sliced raw garlic and jalapeño. The choice of “salsa” is salty bean paste or a cringingly salty shrimp paste; use either sparingly to boost the savory flavors.
The pork is boiled pork belly, gamey and fat-marbled, and it precisely echoes the texture and flavor of chashu in Japanese ramen. Sadly, on the night I visit, Sarang Bang is out of the fresh oysters meant to accompany this dish.
Some entrees do not live up to the promise of the appetizers. The kimchi jjigae, or kimchi stew, served furiously boiling, is not spicy at all; the thin broth tastes mostly of boiled cabbage; and the pork is overly fatty, with big rounds of cartilage in the center. The texture of the tangled pile of pencil-thick limbs in the octopus dish is echoed by the mushrooms, but it is as close to bland as ultraspicy Korean cuisine gets.
All is forgiven for the mediocre entrees, however, when the spicy chicken arrives. The small chopped chicken pieces are heavily sauced with a chili paste, garlic and honey concoction. The heat of the chicken is tempered by a dish of pickled daikon cubes. It’s the kind of dish during which conversation is replaced by lip-smacking, grunts and short murmured exclamations like, “So good!” and “Holy crap!” Each heavily coated piece is a chicken Russian roulette: Will it be meaty or just a stingy backbone? No matter, the sauce is good enough to eat with a spoon, which I proceed to do.
Sarang Bang may lack the refined elegance of Pine Tree House and the boisterous barbecue tables of Korea House Restaurant (both in Sacramento on Folsom Boulevard)—the latter is such a blast with a group—but a seafood pancake and a spicy chicken dish nonetheless haunt my dreams.