“You’re here to eat food?” the server asked me as I pointed to an empty table. It’s not the sort of question you expect when you walk into a restaurant, but I chalked it up to the fact that the newly opened Oh San Restaurant is deeply steeped in its Korean-ness. Aside from a small sign over the register reserving the right to refuse service, there is no English written anywhere. But when I told the server that I’d heard the restaurant specialized in soondae (Korean blood sausage) and I was there to try it, she warmed up a bit. She showed me a tiny table facing the kitchen and walked me through the menu, double-checking to make sure I knew what I was ordering.
Oh San Restaurant opened in Koreatown at the end of February. You’ll find it tucked between a hair salon and a video mart on the corner of Western Avenue and Fourth Street. A restaurant by the same name once operated near Olympic and Harvard, and on the off chance that you were enjoying soondae in the late ’80s, you might vaguely recognize the recipe. Kelly Lee, a manager at the new spot, says her family sold the original Oh San Restaurant in 1984, but it eventually closed, prompting her family to retake the name. They’re back to making traditional blood sausages and are slowly regaining a local Korean following.
There is no menu at Oh San. The kitchen’s offering are scrawled with fat, black marker in hangul on sheets of white printer paper taped to the wall. I was told I could get the soondae with a spicy soup, various banchan and some condiments for $17.99, and I said that sounded good. While I waited, a few more customers wandered in and ordered the same thing. A man sitting next to me slurped from a bowl of milky sul lung tang with an ox foot. I sat alone for maybe 10 minutes waiting for my lunch to arrive.
And then the miniature food parade began: a small bowl of cabbage kimchi and another filled with large chunks of spicy radish; a tiny dish with seasoned salt and soupy salted shrimp; a bowl of spicy soup with slivers of tripe, pig’s tongue and pig’s ears lurking beneath the surface; a stainless-steel dish of rice; some salty cucumber spears; and a massive plate of purplish-black sausage slices flanked with sliced liver and more pig’s ear for good measure. It’s a lot of food for one person, so maybe you should bring a friend.
The soondae is mildly flavored but delicious. Lee says the recipe includes beef instead of the traditional pork blood and a little bit of finely minced pork. Rice noodles and some sweet rice act as a binder and lend a dense, bouncy texture — not custardy or crumbling — that makes for satisfying snacking. You can dip each piece into the seasoned salt if you like, but it’s sharp and abrasive, even in minuscule quantities. The soupy mixture of salted shrimp and other seasonings lends a softer brine to each bite. The daikon and kimchi offer counterpoints in both texture and acidity.
While I ate, I watched a woman cooking in the kitchen. She wore azure blue pants and an orange shirt with a cartoonish floral print and tended a stockpot that was so large she could easily bathe in it. When she had nothing to do, she sat down on a small plastic stool, taking breaks that averaged no more than 13 seconds. Then she’d jump back up, flitting among various stations, ladling soup or heating a mix of organ meats in broth with a strainer. Eventually, she ushered another procession of plates out into a dining room that was now about a third full.
A handful of diners for a random weekday lunch may not seem like much to get excited about, but you can feel some momentum building behind this tiny restaurant. Its simple plate of sausage is worth your attention.
Oh San Restaurant, 361 S. Western Ave.; (213) 369-3848.