On a recent Sunday night, awash in the Technicolor glow of hotels and sports bars and big-name retailers, San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter felt like Disneyland's Main Street. Caught in a touristy web yards away from the Ghirardelli store, I was briefly transported to Mickey Mouse's stomping grounds. Perhaps the telltale sign of gentrification is that everything begins to look and feel like an amusement park.
Restaurateur Alex Thao's third Gaslamp establishment, Saja Korean Kitchen (417 Fourth Ave.), opened in July, joining Rama and Lucky Liu's. The high-achieving Thao unveiled the Chinese joint Lucky Liu's earlier this year—and before that, he was busily reimagining Hillcrest's Celadon, transforming the 20-year-old Thai joint into the now-closed French Concession.
"Saja" means lion in Korean, and there's certainly something majestic about the restaurant's artful décor. Korean movie posters provide ample eye candy for outdoor-patio diners, while white tables and chairs complement the warm wood floors. The cozy space is almost cave-like with its low ceilings and dim lighting.
Thao traveled coast to coast researching Saja's menu, which combines traditional Korean dishes with more fashionable items—like Brussels chips and spicy tuna tartar. Depending on your mood, you might feel confused or comforted by the diverse options. Executive Chef Jason Velasquez, formerly with now-shuttered Katsuya, mans the kitchen.
A recent U-T San Diego review of Saja states that "while Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants thrive, Korean cuisine is still a niche market." Writer Pam Kragen goes on to say, "That's a niche Alex Thao hopes to crack wide open with Saja."
I don't agree that Korean cuisine represents uncharted territory within the American culinary landscape. During the past few years, Korean-American chefs Roy Choi and David Chang have helped steadily guide Korean cuisine into the mainstream.
In fact, Saja's Mexican-Korean fusion bulgogi tacos are reminiscent of the ones doled out by Choi's fleet of Kogi food trucks. Made with cloud-soft, gently sweet bao buns, Saja's version is delectable. The marinated-and-grilled beef drips rich, buttery flavor with every bite. A sliver of something green—perhaps a few zingy pickles or a lettuce leaf—would calm down the borderline-too-salty meat, but it's nevertheless a joy to eat.
Still, a plate of lackluster gimbap made me wonder whether Saja, in an effort to "crack" the imagined niche, is trying to be too many things at once. The Korean finger food resembles Japanese sushi rolls, featuring seaweed-wrapped rice and a host of fillings. Surprisingly, the gimbap's hefty ingredient list of galbi short ribs, spinach, carrots, sweet omelet and pickled radish doesn't result in a remarkably flavorful dish.
The jajangmyeon's egg noodles are firm and chewy, but the black-bean sauce topping them didn't resonate with me. Perhaps, being unfamiliar with the classic Korean dish, I can't accurately judge it. But I can tell you that it was filling yet forgettable—a carby tangle of noodles capped off with an insipid sauce.
Saja Korean Kitchen is young and bright-eyed and eager to improve. I can honestly say I hope that it does.