An assortment of SAN Korean Kitchen kimchi and ingredients. Courtesy image.

PictureSAN Korean owner-chef Monica Chang in her commercial kitchen. Courtesy image.

The restaurant landscape in Marin – and Mill Valley in particular – is home to an array of restaurants that more than hold their own with their neighbors to the north and south.

But there are gaps, and Monica Chang is on a mission to fill one of them: Korean food.

Chang has launched SAN Korean Kitchen, a local specialty food company focusing on infusing traditional fare like Kimchi with a modern flair. Chang will showcase her delicious wares at the 35th Annual Mill Valley Wine, Beer & Gourmet Food Tasting on June 5, serving up a little bit of everything, including Kimchi on rice and grilled BBQ beef on beds of lettuce.

“I’m so excited – the BBQ scent is really going to hit people,” she says.

Born in Korea and having spent most of her life in Toronto, Chang knows she’s taking a huge leap to launch a Korean specialty food company in Marin. But she also knows that she has two huge factors on her side.

First is the fact that Korean food has boomed in popularity in the United States in recent years, from the explosion of “Korean taco” trucks all over the place to David Chang’s Momufuku empire of restaurants. A Serious Eats story called “How Korean Cuisine Got Huge in America” calls Kimchi, a traditional fermented Korean side dish made of vegetables with a variety of seasonings, “the new miso.”

According Matt Rodbard, co-author of the new “Koreatown: A Cookbook,” it’s no accident that Korean food is having its moment in the U.S. much later than Thai or Japanese food, for instance. “Korean restaurants, at first, were more of a clubby environment, for Koreans, by Koreans,” he told Serious Eats. “There wasn’t really much of an effort to draw in non-Korean guests.”

As a result, Rodbard says, “Korean cuisine is virtually ‘unspoiled’ in American restaurants, with no pad Thai or General Tso’s Chicken equivalent.”

The second factor from which Chang draws confidence is her own experience: she’s taken a massive leap of faith like this before – and it was a smashing success. In 1998, years before Momofuku and Korean tacos, Chang had a bit of an epiphany: she wanted to open her own Korean restaurant. She did just that, opening San Korean Restaurant near Koreatown in Toronto.
“We were slammed as soon as we opened our doors, before we had even our sign up,” Chang says. “People were ready for something new and fresh and different.”

Chang emigrated to Toronto as a toddler when, after her brother was hit by a truck, her parents decided that they wanted a better life for their children. Her father came to Canada first “with $50 in his pocket” and slowly built a foundation that would allow his family to follow him: apartment, job, opening their own convenience store, growing and selling it and then buying the rights to Terra Trading, a Korean department store and opening a location in Toronto.

“Blood, sweat and tears, literally,” Chang says. “And I have always valued that work ethic and made it my own.”

Though she “was almost embarrassed of my Korean heritage” as a young girl, a trip she took to Korea when she was 16 changed everything.

PictureSAN Korean Kitchen chef-owner Monica Chang, fourth from left, and family. Courtesy image.

“A lot of things began to make sense – there was context for me there,” she says. “I understood why certain things were done a certain way in my house, and I started to embrace my culture and my food. I decided that I wanted to try to blend those two worlds by opening a restaurant that embraced my food heritage but with a western person in mind.”

After a stint living in New York City and seeing how non-Koreans were being drawn to the probiotic-driven health benefits of Kimchi and other Korean food, Chang opened San Korean Restaurant. It was a labor of love for nine years, as Chang sold it in 2007 as she grew tired of the juggling act of raising her 5-year-old daughter Tara while simultaneously running the restaurant, “her first baby.” 

“I knew something was going to give – it was either my sanity, the restaurant or my daughter,” Chang says. 

But while SAN Korean Kitchen has Korean food’s growing popularity and Chang’s own experience on her side, she says the most critical driver of her success will be the food itself, and the deep care she brings to it.

“It is somehow in my DNA to want to feed people,” she says. “It is crucial to me that our food is delicious and nutritious. People can feel the love that a caring hand has put into a meal. I try to evoke that feeling with everything I make.”

“These are the foods and recipes that were handed down to me from generation to generation,” she adds. “They have been entrusted with me. I want to provide an authentic experience of the foods that were shared with me from my mother.”

Chang, who is also a yoga instructor and a Thai Yoga Massage therapist, has a house in Lake Tahoe and had been spending more time in the Bay Area in recent years. Two years ago, she was staying at the Mill Valley Inn when she met John Martin, who was hosting the hotel’s nightly wine-and-cheese reception. They hit it off and, apart of Chang’s regular visits to Toronto to see her now-teenaged daughter, are inseparable.

“He has been my greatest champion and keeps me grounded with his wisdom and smile,” she says.

Chang says she’s on schedule to have an array of products in stores, including Mill Valley Market, very soon. They include: Traditional Spicy Napa Cabbage Kimchi, Vegan Spicy Napa Cabbage Kimchi, White Radish Kimchi, From the Root (pickled radish, onion and garlic), Korean BBQ Marinade and Spicy Korean Marinade.

“Kimchi runs through our blood,” she says with a laugh, noting Kimchi’s vast health benefits, particularly digestive.
“We want to encourage eating and cleansing at the same time. And we want everyone to have a jar of our kimchi in their fridge!”

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