The last thing I expect when I pull up to San Su Restaurant is to be charmed.
Next to what used to be Cloverleaf Mall, the Chippenham Square Shopping Center has seen better days — the grass is overgrown and several stores seem vacant. But tucked away in the corner, San Su becomes the setting for one of the loveliest experiences I’ve had in Richmond.
Much of that charm comes from the owners, the Hyun family.
Smack in the center of San Su’s sizeable dining room is an expensive-looking karaoke machine blasting one K-pop song after another. I stop to check it out, and Judy Hyun, who doubles as our server, grins and shouts: “Drink beer! Sing karaoke!”
We sit and are given a basket filled with Mexican flag-colored tortilla chips and a bowl of fresh salsa — a surprise. But a glance at the ample menu reflects the diversity of the restaurant’s neighborhood, and you’ll find a section featuring tacos, pupusas and other Latin American specialties.
Opting to stick with the Korean food, we start with the seafood pancake ($12.95), which is enormous, dense and packed with peppers, onion and shrimp. Despite that, there isn’t much to it, and it desperately needs a dipping sauce. We can’t finish it, and Mrs. Hyun clucks and with a grandmotherly sigh says, “You don’t eat much.”
It’s a good thing we have room. The dolsot bibimbop ($9.95 lunch, $12.95 dinner) is outstanding. Served in the traditional scorching-hot stone bowl, the rice on the bottom quickly becomes crisp, with a smoky, caramel char that adds complexity. Topped with marinated beef, a soft egg, vegetables, seaweed, meat and chili sauce, it’s a blend of textures that keeps me coming back for more.
The L.A. kalbi ($13.95 lunch, $18.95 dinner) — crosscut short ribs that come piled high on a sizzling platter — is the bibimbop’s equal. The ribs are rich, buttery, extraordinarily tender and flavorful, tasting lightly of a soy, sesame and scallion glaze. After the first bite, I ditch the chopsticks I’ve been using and shamelessly devour the entire serving with my hands.
Each dish arrives with a side of sticky rice and an array of traditional Korean accompaniments — small dishes containing kimchi and picked vegetables. And the turnip kimchi at San Su is exceptional. The mix of spiciness, mild funkiness from the fermentation and the firmness of the turnip make this the bite I turn to as a palate cleanser throughout my meal.
Most Americans are more familiar with bulgogi ($11.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner) — thin strips of marinated rib-eye that have hints of soy and mirin. The dish is cooked well, although it’s a little on the bland side.
The pork katsu ($8.95 lunch, $12.95 dinner) also is a Korean staple — a fried pork cutlet coated in panko and drizzled with tangy sauce. Reminiscent of an extra crispy chicken nugget, sans chicken, my order is overcooked, dry and also bland.
On our final visit, we try the Korean barbecue. Escorted into a private room, we’re seated at a table embedded with a grill. The paper doors slide shut as large slabs of pork belly ($16.95) and brisket ($18.95) crackle on the grill, along with onion, mushroom and garlic. But despite the aromatics, the meat itself is underseasoned. Mrs. Hyun, who offers to cook, instructs us on how to properly eat our food. Meat goes on a large leaf of lettuce, and then rice is added and a spicy, sweet bean paste finishes it off. You then eat it all in one bite.
“Now you’re a real Korean” she says, approvingly. Unfortunately, I end up enjoying the experience more than I do the meal.
Sure, the language barrier trips us up from time to time, and the place isn’t going to win any interior design awards, but the authenticity of the food combined with the love the Hyuns show each customer, still makes San Su one of the most enjoyable places I’ve visited in Richmond.
“If you guys are happy, we are happy” Mrs. Hyun says to us one night. And we, most certainly, are happy. S
San Su Restaurant
Mondays-Wednesdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays 11 a.m.-midnight; Saturdays 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sundays noon-10 p.m.
7437 Midlothian Turnpike