San Ho Won
On redefining traditional Korean BBQ
On redefining traditional Korean BBQ
Words: Henry Wu @henrykhwu
In the heart of San Francisco is San Ho Won, a casual Korean barbecue restaurant that effortlessly showcases traditional and modern influences side-by-side. Barbecue meat is grilled over solid lychee wood charcoal, while stews are served in stone bowls set on modern wooden tables under industrial light bulb fixtures. Chef Jeong-In Hwang created its meticulous barbecue techniques in partnership with Corey Lee, the chef behind In Situ, Monsieur Benjamin, and the three Michelin Star restaurant, Benu. San Ho Won focuses on creating a flavorful profile inspired by home cooking and the chefs’ Korean heritage, using locally sourced ingredients.
All of their hard work and thought has certainly paid off. Since opening in the fall of 2021, reservations at San Ho Won have been highly sought after and despite his busy schedule, Chef Hwang sat down with Timid to talk about their successful venture.
Jeong-In Hwang: SAN HO WON is a charcoal barbecue restaurant in San Francisco. Using the best ingredients and meticulous techniques, we want to offer a representation of Korean cooking that we're proud to share and that can contribute to our city’s very vibrant dining culture.
The name SAN HO WON is three Korean words put together: Mountain Tiger Origin. The name comes from Korea’s identity as the land of mountains and tigers. While the tiger is a symbolic figure across Asian cultures, often associated with power and strength, the Korean tiger is unique. They are often depicted with playfulness and take on human qualities in folktales. Korean stories often start with “back when tigers used to smoke…”
JH: When I was very young, my father used to take me to many local Korean restaurants and I became a little gourmand. I loved all of the serious food like soondae (blood sausage), pig’s trotter, and gukbap (a soup made with all parts of the pig), which most kids aren’t drawn to. I learned about tasty food and how to enjoy it at a young age. And I enjoyed learning how to cook for myself. I started with cooking some simple food on my own — kimchi fried rice, tteokbokki, and instant noodles. Nobody really taught me, but I used to reference cookbooks or TV shows. Then I joined a culinary high school when I was 15 years old and started to learn about the professional kitchen. I haven’t stopped cooking since.
JH: There are two major influences on my culinary journey. The first one is meeting and working with Chef Pierre Gagnaire, a very popular and grand chef in France. He has an exceptional artistic touch and sense and incredible ideas. That’s why people call him an artist, not just a chef, and his artistry inspired me. I got really into French cuisine and worked for his various restaurants throughout my 20s. I learned a lot — not only how to cook tasty food but also how to cook from the heart and really consider what is most impactful for the guest.
Then I met Chef Corey Lee in my late 20s and it changed my career path and goals very much. His kitchen inspired me in a different way. Food at Benu was unique and his kitchen management was very organized and consistent. It made me look at Asian food in a different way. I thought Western or French food was held as the highest standard, but I saw that Asian food could be just as, if not more, exciting and creative. At Benu, I learned how to be the best version of myself. After so many years of previously working in French kitchens, I realized that the best thing I can do (and want to do) is make delicious Korean food and share that with others.
TM: How did your cultural roots inspire what you create?
JH: As I’m cooking traditional Korean food, most of my ideas and creations come from what I ate when I was young. There are a lot of memories from childhood and the dishes I tried when I traveled through the different regions of Korea. Those are combined with what I’ve studied about Korean food and the ideas that I discuss with Chef Corey Lee. He is from Korea and grew up in the U.S so I can get his advice about how to make the best Korean food for our audience, and his way of approaching Korean food always inspires me too.
TM: Which dish best represents you?
JH: If you ask me to choose one dish that is on our menu now, it would be our spicy chicken tteokbokki stew. It should feel familiar to Koreans, but it’s not a traditional dish, and it’s very unique and tasty. I wanted the stew to have some charcoal flavor so we first grilled the chicken. The inspiration comes from the Chuncheon style of charcoal-grilled chicken. The homemade rice cakes are a hybrid version of rice and wheat to give the right amount of chew but also have density like pasta. The chicken and rice cakes are tossed in a spicy, tangy sauce. I think this dish represents my cooking style because it’s very homey and looks simple, but there is a lot of thought and technique that goes into it.
TM: What’s next for you?
JH: We just opened SAN HO WON about six months ago, and I want to make sure the restaurant gets settled. In general, I want to share delicious and properly done Korean food with the Bay Area. Moving forward, I want to share our Korean food and culture all over the world!