Spain and Latin America have morcilla, the French have boudin noir, and the British call it blood pudding — or more simply, blood sausage. And in Korea, there's soondae.
Though they're eaten in many parts of the world, blood sausages tend to have a few things in common. There's blood, of course — often from a pig or cow — and there's usually some type of casing. And there's usually some kind of filler, whether it's meat or a grain like barley, oats, or rice. What sets soondae apart from its blood sausage counterparts, though, is that it's often stuffed with noodles as a filler. Glass noodles, to be precise — which gives the soondae a bouncy, chewy texture and a much lighter flavor than any other blood sausage I've tried.
Moo Bong Ri, tucked away in the farthest corner of Koryo Plaza on Telegraph, is the only place I know of in the East Bay that specializes in soondae. It appears to be part of a chain —restaurants by the same name in Santa Clara and Los Angeles feature the identical logo of a winking pig wearing a chef hat, who offers a platter of soondae with one hoof and gives a thumbs up with the other.
For those in the East Bay who grew up eating soondae, Moo Bong Ri's opening in late 2017 means no more need to travel to the South Bay for a familiar treat. For those whose Korean food ventures have been limited to those items that are relatively easy to find on restaurant menus — things like bulgogi and galbi, kimchi and seafood pancakes, tofu stew, and bibimbap — Moobongri offers a deeper look into Korean cuisine.
The soondae guk, listed on the menu as traditional sausage soup, is a soup made with a milky-colored bone broth, full of slices of soondae, pork meat, and pork stomach. The soup arrived unsalted; at the table, condiments included spicy salt, tiny salted shrimp, perilla seeds, and sliced green onions. Even the addition of plain salt woke up the broth, transforming it into one of the tastier bone broths I've had in recent memory. The soondae combined the chewy texture of glass noodles with the savory-sweet, slightly minerally flavor of the blood. The stomach, meanwhile, had a crunchy texture that provided contrast to the blood sausage.
Soondae might not be to everyone's taste, though. The assorted pork soup had the same tasty bone broth as the soondae guk, substituting the soondae and offal for cuts like pork belly, jowl, and shoulder. The blend of meats made for a pleasant combination of fatty richness combined with tender, lean cuts.
Aside from soondae, though, the most popular dish at Moo Bong Ri might be the gamjatang, or pork back bone casserole. On both my visits, nearly every party had an iron pot of the spicy stew, which bubbled furiously over a tabletop burner while diners gnawed away at the meat clinging to the pork bones, triumphantly discarding each cleaned-off bone into a metal bowl. The pot was nearly overflowing with the spicy stew, which contained pork bones, potatoes, perilla leaves, and a sprinkling of perilla seeds. Beneath the broth's fiery red appearance and building heat were notes of nutty, slightly bitter flavor from the perilla leaves and seeds, while the potatoes added some comforting relief from the spice. And while pork back bones may not be as meaty as pork ribs, the nuggets of meat nestled between the bones were tender and flavorful. Moo Bong Ri may not be the only place in this area to get gamjatang, but it's one of the stronger versions I've tried.
Gamjatang only comes in sharing-sized portions, however. Those craving something spicy in a smaller portion size might go for the spicy beef stew, or yukgaejang, made with shredded beef brisket, glass noodles, green onion, and wisps of scrambled egg in a spicy beef broth. The tender beef complemented the crunchy texture and earthy flavor of the fernbrake, while the egg added richness to the dish.
The noodle-style spicy rice cakes were delightfully chewy and came served in a slightly sweet, deceptively spicy sauce. Fried fish cakes, tender onions, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds and green onions added welcome contrasts in flavor and texture.
While there isn't a massive selection of banchan here, the dishes I tried were all done well. Alongside a solid version of cabbage kimchi, cubes of bright, spicy daikon kimchi also made an appearance, as well as an unusually tasty spicy chive kimchi that I haven't found in many other Oakland restaurants. All would make for refreshing, palate-cleansing bites between sips of whatever stew or soup you choose.
Dishes like blood sausage, pork stomach, and pork back bone stew may not be a part of everyone's diet — but they're something worth trying. As alternative meat products like the Impossible Burger make their way onto grocery store shelves and restaurant menus in the name of sustainability, it's easy to forget that as long as we're still butchering animals for their meat, we should use every part of the animal — not just for sustainability reasons, but to honor the animal's life. These dishes offer ways to use up cuts you might not find at your average grocery store counter and are a reminder that unusual cuts can make for unusually tasty dining experiences.