The aroma of Korean BBQ is distinct and hard to find within the South Bay Area. I can reminisce all day of my warm college nights with 3 Korean roommates grilling pork belly and marinated beef. Pickled side dishes strewn across the table and a fresh steaming pot of rice straight out of the rice cooker. I consider myself lucky to be able to be introduced to such deliciousness early on in life. But after my roommates finished their studies and moved back to Korea I was left to my own devices to find that same taste and experience of Korean BBQ.
I did find a few promising places along the streets of El Camino and Stevens Creek, but never a place convenient enough to visit during my busy schedule that limited me to the downtown area of San Jose. For the longest time, I gave up hope of finding a Korean style restaurant downtown. Until one day while walking aimlessly along Santa Clara street I got a whiff of that distinct smell. I followed the smell to a small establishment and was amazed how modern, busy, and hip the place looked like inside. Now I needed to know if it was the real thing and ordered some food. One bite and it kicked me back to memory lane and I thanked the food Gods for such a place to finally open Downtown.
HOM Korean Kitchen is not like most Korean restaurants. The menu is simply split into 3 sections; first pick your foundation in rice or salad, followed by your choice of protein ( meat or tofu), and lastly you get to pick 3 toppings of pickled vegetables. It is an unorthodox style to the usual Korean restaurant experience but it works and it expands the flavors from its endless combinations. It’s perfect if someone is on the go and on a budget. But best of all, their in-house chili sauce is the real icing on the plate.
I sat down with Owner Konan Pi on a busy Friday afternoon.
Jorge M Sanchez: I remember how this place always intrigued me when it first opened up. This place has such a great vibe with great artwork on your walls. By the way, where did you get the artwork from?
Konan Pi: Someone donated them.
KP: Yea, his name is Jared Rohrer and he loved our food. He was heading out of town for a while and he had this artwork sitting around. So he wanted to make use of it. So he just donated it to us.
JMS: Can you let me know about the inception of this establishment and why the breakdown of Korean cuisine to a system where the customer has full control of the ingredients?
KP: Of course, I have had a couple of years of owning restaurants. This is the 5th business I have done and the 2nd restaurant I opened. I also worked in other restaurants a lot. Basically I called this place Hom because I wanted my customers to feel like they are in my home and I am cooking a freshly made meal. This is the kind of food I would eat with my friends. That was the basic idea. I cook Korean BBQ a lot and everything in here is made in house. One thing I did think about was how when you go to a Korean restaurant there are a million things on the menu. People were supposed to mix this with that so people didn’t really know how to navigate it unless you went with a Korean person.
JMS: Like having a guide?
KP: Exactly! It’s just a shame because Korean flavors are diverse; sour, spicey, side dishes, all with such great flavors. But it’s not really mainstream. So with this pick and choose concept with the customer a few feet away from the ingredients and being able to see the meat being grilled, smell and hear the sizzle, it felt a lot more approachable.
JMS: This place is pronounced like “Home” but it is spelled Hom with a line over the “o”. Does that specifically mean something?
KP: It’s funny, because I was thinking of what to call it and all these names were coming up. I am part Korean so I don’t really speak a lot of Korean. But a lot of Koreans have a way to pronounce certain English words to which they adopted to their culture. So Hom with a long sounding “o” is how they actually pronounce “Home”.
JMS: By the way, I mean this as a compliment. But you look rather young to be owning and running a lot of businesses. How old are you?
KP: (Laughs) I am 37. I have been a server, bartender, worked at Zuni café in San Francisco, I have a lot of experience working in a kitchen. I am originally from Columbus, Ohio and I had a restaurant there. It was a Chinese food concept with fresh ingredients and that was the first restaurant I ran by myself.
JMS: What attracted you to the food industry in the first place?
KP: I guess I kinda grew up in it. I actually never wanted to open a restaurant. I had a spa business in San Francisco and I did that to stay away from the restaurant business. My family worked in restaurants working 80 hour weeks. And I was like, ” I am never going to get involved with the restaurant business”. But the spa business turned out a bit boring; it was all Zen, whispering all the time, calm, and peaceful. I was getting so antsy at the front desk. Here I am surrounded by fire and running around people.
JMS: Why the move from Ohio to the Bay Area?
KP: I fell in love with the Bay Area out here. I love all the outdoor stuff here- hiking, kayaking, and the weather of course.
JMS: I guess your establishment here is in prime real estate too. It is located at a busy downtown street of San Jose and it seems to be in the epicenter where you can reach the students from the University and the employees of surrounding businesses. Were you aware of that when looking for a location?
KP: I got lucky, I wish I could say I had it all planned out. But I was actually very nervous when choosing to settle at this location. I never lived here. The place was a Cheesesteak restaurant that was for sale when I came down here and sat around looking at the neighborhood. The street can get a little scary at times so I was very nervous when I bought the restaurant. There are City Hall employees, students, doctors, lawyers, and plenty of catering. Yeah, I got lucky.
JMS: I am very curious on how you deconstructed Korean cuisine into its core simple ingredients and what was the feedback you received from the Korean locals who have grown up with a more traditional style?
KP: I would say that the majority of the Koreans who come in here are surprised on how authentic some of the items are. They understand that some of the stuff can be much sweeter. But they are proud to see the Korean culture expanding and part of the mainstream with an opportunity for people to try out the food. I am sure there are a couple of haters out there but they tend to be not Koreans. They would be like, “this is a different experience” and be a bit put off by that.
JMS: How about the feedback from people who never had Korean food before but came here as an introduction to it?
KP: That feedback is overwhelmingly like, “hands down I never knew about this and all the marinades!”. They really do love it.
JMS: How do you marinate your meat? There is something about it that is a bit different. I can taste the flavor profile of Bulgogi but yet a little different at the same time.
KP: Yeah, sure. Not to go into a laundry list of ingredients but it is mostly your typical Korean marinade with soy, sugar, garlic, and pepper. I will say what we do a bit differently is that we use an organic raw sugar. I think that adds something different considering that a lot of Korean BBQ use coke, sprite, or corn syrup. So using that organic raw sugar adds a different element.
JMS: Any aspirations of expansion?
KP: Yeah, we are in the middle of opening one in Redwood City in 6-8 weeks.
JMS: Cool, I am real fan of this place. Another vibe I get from this place is having a sense of youth to it. Does that make sense?
KP: Like our staff?
JMS: More like the vibrant colors and the constant movement of people inside and out. Plus you got some nice calming colors on the walls. Is that something you picked up from your Spa days?
KP: (laughs) Gotcha! Like the décor and everything, yea actually I designed it with my friends. Picked out the color themes and I did the logo design. We do attract a lot of milennials who like the fresh and healthy stuff. That could explain all the younger people here and it adds to the place.
JMS: Thanks Konan for doing this.
KP: My pleasure.
JMS: I might get another plate to go. I don’t know.
KP: Of course.
JMS: I guess I will. It’s too good.
HOM Korean Kitchen: 76 E Santa Clara St, San Jose, CA 95113
Interview Recorded 7/14/17
Transcribed by Jorge M Sanchez
Edited by Ioana Gheorghiu