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Korean classics

Soups, kimchi shine at Song Pa on Villa Street

With Japanese restaurants in one direction, Vietnamese, Indian and Thai places in the other, and a buzzing beer garden just a few steps away, it's pretty easy to walk right past the small and unassuming Song Pa Korean Cuisine. A new addition to the global buffet that is downtown Mountain View, Song Pa might not exactly expand your culinary horizons but it does provide some authentic Korean flavors, albeit toned down for local palates.

If your knowledge of Korean food starts and ends at kimchi, then Song Pa offers an easy introduction; if you are looking for the latest in jjajangmyeon, bingsu or tteokguk, you might need to go elsewhere.

Song Pa is a small place, with just 10 or so tables and a one-page menu listing mostly standard Korean fare. It opened in February, replacing the well-established Totoro, which had offered up Korean cooking for almost 15 years.

Decor is sparse: a few laminated close-ups of food scattered on cream-colored walls, unadorned tables and a drop-down screen blocking the view into an open kitchen. Design wise, it's pretty unmemorable, but that is certainly not the restaurant's draw. Both at lunch and at dinner there is a steady stream of customers: mostly young, mostly Asian and most wearing laminated name-tags from their nearby offices.

Pleasant young greeters make eye contact when you enter and then gesture in the general direction of an open table. Once you order, your server returns with banchan, small side dishes including kimchi, mung-bean sprouts, cucumber, glazed sweet potato, spicy cubes of tofu and a miso dipping sauce. These tastes are designed to balance flavors and were tasty nibbles both on their own and blended into our main dishes. Song Pa's kimchi is made in-house, and its fermentation was nicely complex -- crispy, salty and briny with a dose of umami.

The menu features soups, rice dishes, barbecue, stir-fries and a good variety of vegetarian selections. While many Korean restaurants provide tabletop grills for customized barbecue, at Song Pa the meat, pork and chicken are cooked in the kitchen and delivered by servers.

The stone bowl bibimbap ($14) arrived sizzling and steaming. Ingredients are arranged on top of a mound of white rice that crackles and pops as it continues to cook in the scorchingly hot bowl. Lightly marinated beef is coupled with wilted spinach, slivers of carrot, mung beans and zucchini, then topped with raw egg. I found the dish pedestrian and bland, though the bits of crunchy rice at the bottom of the bowl mixed in with the rest of the components gave it an interesting texture.

Barbecued beef short ribs, or galbi ($13 at lunch; $19 at dinner), were thin-cut across the bone and dry-marinated in a balanced blend of sweet and tangy. They arrived topped with a mound of sautéed onions, yet more kimchi and a perfect dome of innocuous white rice. The meat was seasoned with a meager hand and tough from too much time on the grill.

Kimchi pancakes ($12) were prepared perfectly -- crisp on the outside, silky smooth on the inside, but here, too, the flavor was bland. Though plenty of cabbage was mixed in with the batter, there was little evidence of the distinctive, tangy bite of kimchi.

Soups, on the other hand, appear to be a strong point. Beef dumpling soup ($12) was loaded with delicious dumplings and clusters of clear noodles in a piquant broth garnished with scallions. Its deep flavors were set off by an egg cooked in the boiling hot liquid. Other soup selections come with a whole egg that you can break into the simmering bowl on your own.

Beverages include beer, rice wine and soju, the Korean equivalent of Japanese sake. Servings are more than generous, and servers are attentive and charming.

Song Pa is a good addition to downtown Mountain View's gastronomic buffet for diners interested in dabbling in Korean food. But the restaurant needs a bit more spark to draw repeat diners once that initial curiosity has been sated.

Freelance writer Ruth Schechter can be emailed at ruths315@sbcglobal.net.

Song Pa Korean Cuisine

841 Villa St., Mountain View


Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5-9 p.m., Monday-Saturday

Credit cards: Yes

Reservations: No

Catering: No

Outdoor seating: No

Parking: Street, nearby lots

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Happy Hour: No

Wheelchair access: Yes

Noise level: Low

Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent

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7 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2016 at 12:57 pm

With the growing non-white population in Mountain View, "toned down for local palates" may be a poor marketing decision.

10 people like this
Posted by eyes Open
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Local = white? Ha, wow, do you live in this town?

I agree they shouldn't tone it down, but I think it's a bad decision because of all the hugely well traveled foodies who live in the area. I don't have a specific color in mind when I say that, but they reward authenticity.

7 people like this
Posted by Max Hauser
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Oct 11, 2016 at 10:49 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Totoro (the former Korean restaurant in this low-key spot) was itself reviewed multiple times in the Voice -- for example, this early review, Web Link which remained posted in the restaurant's glass door (and still relevant) until Totoro closed. So there is some journalistic context at Embarcadero Media, though the restaurant itself changed; also I believe Totoro's former owners are now Song Pa's landlords -- an element of continuity.

Totoro gained quite a local fan club for its reliable specialties and friendly owners. Some of those local fans returned for last meals before Totoro's announced closure, then for early meals in the new restaurant Song Pa. The interior is unremarkable, yes, but also is noticeably cleaned up and modernized since Totoro.

I was mainly interested to compare the cooking. At least one popular Totoro specialty (spicy grilled pork, dwaeji bulgogi) was judged better, more flavorful and just as tender, in Song Pa's version when we tried it. Also, Totoro had featured prominently on its menu, and sold many, hot bubbling individual tofu hotpots (fresh egg on the side, to break and cook in the boiling stew). I tried one at Song Pa: identical to Totoro's. Song Pa's banchan side dishes expanded in variety compared to Totoro (which regularly house-pickled just a few vegetables, those becoming very familiar to repeat customers).

After those Song-Pa experiences, I was surprised to see this review's broadly critical tone. My last Song Pa meal was a few months back, so conceivably the style has changed. But I also wonder if my different take, compared to this review, reflected particular choice of dishes. For example, we found the seafood version of Song Pa's pajeon (savory pancake) delicate, satisfying, the cooked batter feather-light. This reviewer tried the kimchee version, and reported its flavoring weak; maybe that's just not the one to order? Also, the iron-pot tofu stews were such a signature of Totoro (and apparently, well executed at Song Pa) that I thought a new Voice review might try one and report.

However, all this is just an encouragement to return to Song Pa, see how it's cooking now, and try as many dishes as possible.

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