The Lee Brothers' New Namu Gaji in the Mission
The man dropping off a sample of duck eggs to Dennis Lee at Namu Gaji stands awkwardly in front of the chef, who is hacking half a pig into manageable pieces. “This place is Japanese, right?” asks the uncomfortable egg proprietor. Lee says it’s modern California food.
“But some Korean, right?”
“Yes,” Lee admits with hesitation. “Korean-style regional California food.”
At Namu Gaji, that translates to kimchee fried rice studded with bits of hot dog from 4505 Meats, slices of raw king salmon topped with whipped yuzu cream, and cubes of fried tofu in a sauce of brown butter and ginger-garlic dashi.
Dennis, together with his brothers Daniel and David (all under 35), opened Namu in the Inner Richmond five years ago. They intended to expand to a second location, but in the end, they decided to relocate to a piece of prime real estate on the corner of 18th and Dolores streets, while also continuing to cook at the Thursday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and Off the Grid mobile food markets.
Progressive Korean-inflected food is a genre that didn’t exist 10 years ago, but it’s one that’s received plenty of attention in recent years. There’s this New York chef you may have heard of—David Chang. He’s the man behind Momofuku. And LA’s Roy Choi, of Kogi Korean BBQ, gets credit for pioneering Korean tacos, a genius bit of fusion.
Though no strangers to fusion (consider the beloved burger topped with a fried egg and house-made kimchee relish), many of Namu’s dishes are firmly rooted in the Korean canon, including the stone-pot rice, a bibimbap-like dish containing crispy rice and a panoply of vegetables. Soon, those vegetables will be coming from the brothers’ new one-acre farm in Sunol, about 40 miles southeast of SF.
The Lees also have no problem dipping into other cultures for inspiration. A classic Japanese savory pancake, known as okonomiyaki, is one of the best sellers on the menu. And at lunch (a first for Namu), the aforementioned fried rice is joined by a dish they call KFC, a quarter of a Marin Sun Farms chicken that’s fried and lacquered with a sticky, sweet glaze that evokes not so much the colonel but the general—Tso, that is.
Dennis shares his brothers’ matter-of-fact vision for their family-run restaurant: “Our philosophy is to have fun. It’s especially hard to do that if you’re trying to be pretentious. So we decided not to be pretentious.”