Korean Comfort Food At Berkeley Social Club
Steven Choi may have 11 restaurants in the Bay Area now, including Surisan in San Francisco and Fred’s Place in Sausalito. But Berkeley Social Club, which opened in 2016, was the first one to really take inspiration from his Korean heritage.
Located in the heart of Berkeley’s bustling University Avenue corridor, it features an eclectic mix of brunch classics and contemporary Korean fare. It’s pure comfort food with global panache, as I discovered on a recent early Sunday evening, when I visited for dinner with my husband, paying our tab at the end.
The soaring space is done up with Edison chandeliers, a cement bar, and exposed pipes on the ceiling to give it a trendy industrial vibe.
Choi has made his name with Millionaire’s Bacon, which is served at almost every one of his restaurants. He didn’t necessarily invent this sweet, spicy, smoky porcine treat (he’ll be the first to acknowledge it was inspired by a dish he tried elsewhere years ago), but he surely has perfected it.
Of course we had to try it. It’s even easier to do so if you come in time for the Happy Hour Menu, 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., as we did. One very long, thick slice is $6. Owing to its thicker cut, it’s not as crispy as regular bacon. But it sure it a lot more complex tasting. It’s meaty in texture with flavors that linger on the palate. This would be great alongside eggs in the morning or tucked into a sandwich with summer tomatoes.
Also on the Happy Hour Menu is the Sampler ($18) of assorted appetizers. You can tell the restaurant and Chef Nick Yoon take pride in presentation here. A groaning wooden tray is delivered to the table with fried oysters, Korean fried chicken, takoballs, and “Doggy,” the restaurant’s take on a corn dog. Everything is arranged just so, with the fried chicken and fried oysters arrayed on decorative twigs.
The fried chicken arrives two ways — one coated with a spicy-sweet gochu sauce, the other sans. Both were delicious, with a crunchy coating that lasted even through the coating of the sauce. The fried chicken was my favorite on the sampler.
The oysters were plump and crisp, too. The takoballs were coated in a flurry of julienned nori and bonito, giving the tender octopus pancake balls a big hit of umami. The corn dog was probably the weakest component. It was swaddled in a bread-like wrapping that didn’t have nearly the flavor boost of a classic cornmeal batter.
I can never resist dolsot — the hot stone pot full of rice. You can get it with just vegetables and an egg ($16) or add spicy pork ($4), which is what I did. The rice is a perfect foundation for all the garnishes and pork. The meat has a moderate amount of spice; if you want more, just stir in some of the accompanying sauce made with the Korean fermented pepper sauce known as gochujang. Mix everything together and you get a different experience in every mouthful. Plus, the rice at the very bottom of the shallow pot turns crisp — my favorite part.
In the Bulgogi Bowl ($15), very tender ribeye is flavored with a sweet soy marinade and piled on top of rice with oyster mushrooms, red onions, and chopped lettuce.
The G.I. Fried Rice ($14) is redolent of kimchi, and comes adorned with two big slabs of Spam, as well as a sunny side-up egg. No matter your opinion on the canned luncheon meat — this dish is irresistible. It’s a load of spiciness and salty porkiness. It’s the type of dish you feel guilty about loving; but it’s so good it’s worth owning your predilection.
Yes, we did have to doggy bag quite a bit. The leftovers made for a fantastic lunch the next day, too.
More Berkeley Eats: Ippudo
And: La Marcha