LYNNWOOD — Sam Oh Jung is the kind of restaurant where the food is good, the banchan is plentiful and the atmosphere so convivial that you’ll often see big Korean families gathering in the spacious booths to toast their loved ones on special occasions.
My friend Christina Mathis has frequently been part of those celebrations. Christina’s family is Korean and her mom is a really good cook, so “we never ate out as kids,” she tells me.
And yet, “When we did, it was here,” she says, gesturing around us, potted plants cheering up the simple space on the Wednesday afternoon when we decided to meet for lunch.
Christina says her family comes to Sam Oh Jung for everything from casual dinners to celebrations — her aunt’s 50th birthday party included.
She tells me the service is better than average for most Korean restaurants (“it’s fair to say you don’t go to a Korean restaurant for service. It’s usually pretty abrupt and harsh,” she tells me) and even though she orders our lunch in Korean, she assures me I would have no problem if I didn’t have her as translator.
It seems strange to talk about a coffee dispenser when I started this story with Christina singing praises about one of her favorite restaurants. But indulge me. Because one of the best parts about the diner-style space at Sam oh Jung is its authentic Korean coffee machine, which dispenses unlimited tiny cups of milky, sweet coffee and Job’s tears tea for free at the touch of a button. Mathis says machines like these are a staple in just about every Korean hotel and convenience store, each cup costing about the equivalent of a quarter.
I’m not even a coffee drinker, but these delicious little cups are the perfect combination of sugar, hot milk and strong coffee. By the time we left, our table was littered with the tiny white paper cups and I felt slightly jittery for the rest of the day.
In addition to the coffee we couldn’t seem to stop drinking, we were given steaming cups of borichan, a toasted barley tea, and my daughter got a small bottle of a probiotic drink that’s a hit with kids. I also got a cup of the Job’s tears tea from the machine, a thick herbal tea made from black beans, walnuts, almonds and sugar. It’s got the consistency of an elote and is sweet and nutty.
Mathis says the way to really enjoy the food at Sam Oh Jung is with a crowd, as certain dishes — like the bo ssam pork with kimchi and the seafood stews — are portioned for the table. There are also quite a few combination platters on the menu, pairing puffy seafood pancakes with big bowls of soybean stew, or beef short ribs with chilled buckwheat noodles that are ideal for sharing.
All dishes come with banchan — tiny side dishes of kimchi and more — the variety of which is the mark of a great Korean restaurant.
We ordered the haemul pajun (seafood pancake) and dwen jang chigae (soybean stew) combination plate ($23.99) and the bulgogi bokum ($15.99), a stir-fried beef dish with glass noodles and vegetables.
The banchan that arrived included kimchi, mung bean jelly called nokdu-muk, simmered pumpkin, kongnamool soybean sprouts, steamed eggplant called gaji namul, steamed spinach and a fish cake called eomuk. These change daily and also seasonally — pumpkin disappearing as the weather warms. We also get two sides of purple rice.
This was a feast fit for way more than the two of us (my toddler’s appetite was negligible on this day) and we set aside our coffee cups and dug in.
The crisp haemul pajun pancake is fluffy and stuffed with squid and green onion. There’s a slightly spicy soy dipping sauce on the side that is also wonderful, but definitely ups the salt factor.
The marinated beef in the bulgogi bokum is incredibly tender, but also slightly sweet. The carrots and onion tangled up with the glass noodles still had a bit of a crunch to them, which was a nice surprise. Mathis says this dish is very typical of homestyle Korean cooking; something her mother would make when she was younger if she didn’t have a lot of time.
The dwen jang chigae is pure comfort. The broth is hearty and rich with garlic and spices. Silky cubes of tofu bob among chunks of squash and halved mushrooms. There might be a hint of gochujang in the broth, but the heat was welcome.
The banchan was completely delightful. The simmered pumpkin was slick with sesame oil, the kimchi crunchy and tangy, the mung bean jelly akin to slippery rice cakes.
Over the din of Korean being spoken by diners, there’s a soothing, constant trickling from an indoor water fountain near the coffee machine. Each booth is affixed with a call button that lights up when pushed. It’s a comfortable spot where I can see myself coming back with a group of friends for that bo ssam or one of the seafood stews that Christina says comes out complete with its own burner to finish cooking at your table. Plus it won’t be too long before I need a cup of milk coffee or three.
Sam Oh Jung, 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily; 17425 Highway 99, Lynnwood; 425-745-3535; sam-oh-jung-restaurant.business.site