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The Big, Bold Flavors of Namu Gaji

Pickled, seared beef tongue at Namu Gaji.

Pickled, seared beef tongue at Namu Gaji.


As my friend Mark and I sat down at the slender bar at the equally shoebox-like Namu Gaji in San Francisco, he started to look nervous.

When I heard that beef tongue was a special that night, I asked if he was game to try the restaurant’s rather unique preparation of it. Mark hemmed and hawed, squirmed a bit, and recounted the times he had tongue at other restaurants, only to find the rather toothsome, pebbly texture thoroughly unappealing.

Then, he looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “But if you really want to order it….”

So, we did. And when Mark speared a chunk, and took his first bite, I watched his trepidation turn to surprise and awe. It was the first tongue dish he’d ever relished.

Namu Gaji’s food will do that to you. It’s familiar yet not. It’s full of big, bold, sometimes fiery flavors — the kind you find yourself craving again and again after just one encounter, as I found after being invited in a as a guest of the restaurant a few weeks ago.

The restaurant also operates a food stand at the farmers market on Thursdays and Saturdays at the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace, as well as at the market at the Marin Country Mart in Larkspur on Saturdays. Later this year, it also plans to start selling its own line of kimchee at the restaurant and Bi-Rite Market.

The award on the bar.

The award on the bar.

The chef's counter/bar may be bare bones, but it has the best seats in the house.

The chef’s counter/bar may be bare bones, but it has the best seats in the house.

Founded by three Korean-American brothers, Dennis Lee (the chef), Daniel Lee and David Lee, the restaurant (Korean for “tree branch”) serves Korean fare. But also, Japanese-inspired ones and pan-Asian ones all their own like the beef tongue dish that is not Korean at all. Dennis Lee just decided to try pickling the meat for a week, then searing it to order. The pickling breaks down the tough cut, making it as tender as short ribs. It also adds an unexpected tang to the rich meat. The composed dish is beautiful to behold, looking like a zen garden of sorts.

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