Find Your Way to Tapas Tokki
You have to be in the know to find Tapas Tokki. Even then, you may be rather confounded when trying to find the location of this small, tucked-away Korean small-plates restaurant in Santa Clara.
Chef-Owner Jin Jeong says even people who do find their way, sometimes poke their head in the door apprehensively, and timidly ask, “Is this a restaurant?”
Why, yes it is. And a delightful one at that.
Not only is it located in a compact, nondescript strip mall you could easily drive by without a second glance that also houses a beauty salon, a Filipino restaurant and the Eritrean Community Center, but it’s in a spot that you might never think to venture to.
It is located in the alleyway to the side of the mall. The fact that there’s no sign with its name on it doesn’t make it any easier. But once you spot a sign with a leaping rabbit on it, you know you’ve found it.
The Korean-born Jeong didn’t purposely choose this unlikely locale to open his first restaurant in 2016. It was just the only place he could afford to do so.
“Tokki” is rabbit in Korean, and it’s the astrological sign that Jeong was born under. Inside this compact 34-seat restaurant, you’ll spot rabbit mascots throughout.
He runs a lean-mean operation. It’s usually just him in the kitchen, cooking everything with just one helper, plus one server. No substitutions are allowed unless there are severe allergies. And forget about requesting hot tea. There isn’t any, as a sign at the bar clearly states.
But why waste your thirst on tea when there is so much beer, sake and soju to explore instead.
Indeed, the alcohol menu is longer than the food menu, as befitting this speakeasy-type place. Take your time perusing it because there are some real finds on it, including Estrella Inedit ($7), Ferran Adria’s wheat beer that has a back note of banana and is as quenching and refreshing as a summer breeze; and Matcha IPA ($11) from Japan, that’s brewed with the ceremonial tea and is a vivid deep green when poured into a glass. It’s so unique, with the grassy, bitter astringency of matcha marrying with the taste of the hops.
Even on a hum-drum Wednesday night, the place was nearly packed, as we found when we dined. We paid our tab at the end, though, the chef sent out a couple of dishes on the house for us to try.
Bruschetta ($12) comes topped with moist fillets of full-flavored mackerel with cracklingly crisp skin, garnished with sour cream and salmon eggs. It eats like lox and bagels but with thinner bread to let the fish star far more.
You’ve no doubt had countless renditions of mac ‘n’ cheese ($15). But none like this — made with chewy Korean rice cakes shaped like peanuts. Known as “tteok and cheese,” it is my new favorite comfort food. Bubbling in an iron pot, it’s cheesy all over, and wonderfully chewy and filling. To gild things even more, it’s topped with bulgogi beef. This is the kind of dish you’ll be craving again and again after just one taste.
Jeong will often have one or two sashimi specials available. We went with the ocean trout ($25), a large plate full of thin slices cut from the belly and sides. It was as rich tasting as salmon.
For an extra treat, Jeong also grilled the spine-ribs of the fish and served it to us to tear away at with chopsticks. Take your time to get every little morsel; it’s worth your patience.
The way he does tofu here will make a fan out of even an ardent hater. “Tofu & Kimchi” ($13) are squares of tofu fried golden on the outside and soft and melty inside. They’re covered with sauteed shredded pork belly, kimchi and teeny puffed rice balls. It’s slightly spicy and quite savory. You may end up fighting your companion for the last portion.
“Army Stew” ($12) has been on his menu since the beginning. It’s got a long tradition in Korea, made with whatever scrounged provisions one could lay their hands on after the war. That included processed foods such as hot dogs and Spam.
Jeong’s version pays tribute to that, keeping it traditional, as he believes it should be. This is no gourmet creation, but a bubbling cauldron of hot dog slices, mushrooms, cabbage, onion, kimchi, Korean instant noodles, Korean rice cakes, gooey melted cheese, and plenty of gochujung for a fiery bite.
You might balk at that. But it is a dish that will warm you through and through on a cold winter night like few other things. It’s like a cozy blanket both wrapped around you and giving you a kick in the pants.
Jeong also wanted us to try one of his favorite soups that goes well with beer. Or if you’ve imbibed too much, makes a fine hangover remedy, too.
“Seaweed and Oyster” soup is like nothing I’ve ever had before. My Chinese-American mother would make seaweed soup when I was a child. But hers was very brothy, with large pieces of seaweed floating in it. His Korean version uses seaweed that’s as fine as hair. When it is cooked in broth, it coalesces into a mass that soaks up everything around it, making it unexpectedly filling. Coupled with the oysters, this is an umami bomb of a soup. It’s super briny, slightly salty, and again, just very comforting.
Indeed, after a beer or two and some gutsy dishes, that’s the overriding feeling you get from Tapas Tokki, a gem of a hole-in-the-wall. That is, once you’ve found it, of course.