MODERN KOREAN FOOD
LIGHTS UP WEST OAKLAND
By Sarah Henry
Photos by Nicki Rosario
Sometimes it pays to listen to the females in the house.
For years, Korean-born chef Sunhui Chang listened to his wife, theater director Ellen Sebastian Chang, and daughter, SunIm, encouraging him to open a restaurant serving the kind of Korean comfort food he cooked for them at home. “My dad’s agedashi tofu is just the best,” says SunIm with evident pride as her father’s hands work a bowl of cabbage destined to become kimchi, that signature Korean condiment.
But chef Chang wasn’t convinced the East Bay was ready for the creative bar food he had in mind. His skewers, sandwiches, and rice plates are rooted in the small-plate foods of the Japanese (izakaya) and Korean (soju bang) casual drinking spots, with overtones of Southern cooking: The guy loves both kale and fried chicken. “I’d never cooked Korean food on a professional level, so it took me a while to come around to it,” concedes the longtime caterer, who typically turned out California-Mediterranean cuisine on request. “But I had this gut feeling if there was a place that it was going to work it was here, in wild West Oakland, which has an adventurous spirit.”
Going with the gut—and the family’s finely honed taste buds—proved a wise move. FuseBOX has been humming along to rave reviews ever since opening just over a year ago. And there’s no mistaking it for your typical Korean barbecue, bibimbap, banchan house. The rice bowls, side dishes, and small plates here exhibit the kind of attention to detail and execution one might expect to find in a fancy-pants fine-dining establishment. Instead, diners have to track down this handcrafted food to an industrial, warehouse section of West Oakland, where they dig in at minimalist wooden tables in the intimate indoor dining space—a former furniture showroom—or outdoors at a communal weather-hewn wood table. (Plans are afoot to enhance the outdoor patio with built-in grills and a sweet potato roaster. Nice.)
There’s a daily selection of grilled skewers, both meat and vegetable offerings, along with regular items like FuseBox KFC; finger-licking spicy chicken wings; a pork belly torta served with house pickles; grilled beef, pork, or chicken bap sets (which include rice and banchan along with meat); and that to-die-for housemade tofu. Items cost as little as $1 and as much as $13, with most under $10. It’s the kind of food to share, and servings are modest, so be prepared to order seconds of favorites.
Chang, who was born in South Korea and moved with his family at age 7 to Guam, grew up watching PBS cooking shows and worked in his mom’s Korean restaurant. So cooking and kimchi are in his blood, which might explain why his staff wear black Ts that proclaim, “i bleed kimchi.” The cabbage condiment features in his banchan, the pickled, fermented, and cooked side dishes that are a staple of Korean cuisine. But Chang’s kimchis include everything from baby bok choy crowns, turnip greens, and carrot tops—what he likes to call the “offal of vegetables”—the bits that most people toss in the compost. It seems the chef hasn’t run across a leaf, stem, root, or bulb he couldn’t pickle. “It’s a discipline to make kimchi and other pickles,” he says, “I’m an obsessive with tunnel vision, so I really get into perfecting fermented foods.”
The plates coming out of Chang’s tiny kitchen run from authentic to inventive, and occasionally offbeat: Tang Granita Creamsicle anyone? He and his small crew make most everything from scratch, including gochujang, the hot, salty, and sweet fermented red pepper paste that’s another foundation of Korean cooking. Given the bar-food concept, booze plays a role here, too. In addition to sake, soju, and wine, they have hyper-local beer from West Oakland’s Linden St. Brewery on tap.
Chang moved to Berkeley at the tender age of 17 and funded his college tuition with a variety of food-related jobs, including one as a grill cook at a long-gone Korean restaurant in Oakland. When he launched his own catering business, he made everything but Korean food for more than a dozen years. He doesn’t miss the gig. “I was burned out on the logistics of catering,” says Chang, who now lives six blocks from his restaurant, where his wife runs the front of the house. “I wasn’t actually doing a lot of cooking, and I really wanted to get back into the kitchen.”
Lucky for us he did. ♣
FuseBOX, 2311A Magnolia St; 510.444.3100. fuseboxoakland.com. Open Thursday through Saturday for dinner and Wednesday through Saturday for lunch. Check the website for the occasional Saturday lunch closings that occur when Chang’s daughter has soccer tournaments.