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 [email protected]
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
Outdoor seating: No
Parking: Street, nearby lots
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Happy Hour: No
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Low
Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent