Hand-Juice and Heart at a Korean Restaurant on the Fringe

Sunhui Chang had a catering company called Kitchen Dick Road. He was driving around up in Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula, and he saw a street sign: Kitchen-Dick Road, right at the intersection of Woodcock. Back home in Oakland, California, he called his company that: Kitchen Dick Road. He had cards printed up. He thought it was hilarious.

But how many brides really want to deal with the question Who’s catering your wedding? with an answer that has dick in it? So Chang and his wife, Ellen, started calling it KDR instead, and when people asked—people who would never, ever find Kitchen Dick Road even a tiny bit funny, blank to the self-effacing humor that hardens like callouses on a cook’s blade finger—they made something up to fit the initials: Korean Dude Rocks.

“THIS FELT LIKE HOME”
Like all restaurants that end up sticking in your imagination, FuseBox couldn’t exist anywhere but here, a squat run of blocks in West Oakland where guys I grew up with would say they wouldn’t want to get a flat tire at 2 a.m. (it’s always a flat tire). This is a zone where once small factories clanged but now feels 50 percent abandoned; whether it is I can’t say. Next block over there are people in litters of blankets and plastic-bagged possessions on the sidewalk, but there are artists here too, in places invisible to the street.

You get to FuseBox through a rolling metal gate on a low-rise street of fenced concrete yards. Walk through and it still doesn’t feel like much: yellow-leaf nasturtiums weaving through the chain-link perimeter, and in blue tubs, shocks of patchy yellow bamboo. Somebody nailed up a plastic A in English Towne, same pikestaff font as Oakland’s baseball-team logo only in blue, not gold. There’s a long share table under a plywood canopy, and a faded orange bench in the shape of a tiger with chisel gashes to show the fur, leering like the bastard just devoured a toddler, by chainsaw artist John Abduljaami (his studio is at the end of the block).

To Sunhui Chang, this felt naturally like the place to start a restaurant. He grew up in Incheon, South Korea, a port city like Oakland. “It felt like this,” he says. “You go down these blocks of businesses and factories and then all of a sudden it opens up down a little alley and there’s a little bar or restaurant.” Chang’s dad, like any respectable Korean businessman, would hang out and drink and end up brawling, and it was all just the way it was done. “This felt like home,” he says, a place where people make things and run their businesses, not some planter-box commercial strip where things look nice just to make people feel good about themselves.

At 17, Chang moved from South Korea to Berkeley. He landed in low-wage restaurant work. He got better work, and in Oakland he rose to head cook at a traditional Korean restaurant that cooked for mostly Koreans. Chang got restless and did catering, before he and Ellen opened FuseBox two years ago. He’s 45 now.

FuseBox has a small dining room that can feel awkward when things hit capacity and everyone’s pushed up together. Chang says he likes crowded rooms. “In Korea we grew up eight of us, living, eating, and sleeping in a room—that’s just how families are.” The ceiling’s paneled in young redwood; the air smells like resin. There’s a sign next to the door that says I BLEED KIMCHI and it’s on the staff’s T-shirts and it’s an apt way of capturing Chang’s ethos: The food that runs through Korean culture—the fermentation and pickling, marinating and high-heat grilling—mixes in him like fuel and oxygen through a carburetor, to ooze out as hand-juice.

THE FORCE IS WITH HIM
Sunhui and Ellen Sebastian Chang run one of the best restaurants I know, and when I say best I can feel you pulling back and I get it. FuseBox is not Meadowood best, or Eleven Madison Park best, though I’ve never been there, or Coi best or Benu best, though I’ve never really been there either. Sunhui Chang’s FuseBox is one of the best restaurants I know because it’s one of the most honest and human places I know. Chang cooks Korean food that is neither ostentatiously modern nor Californian (though I’m not sure what that means), or consciously designed as fusion. Chang cooks the food his hands have touched, out of the things his hands can reach, in Oakland, California, in 2014.

The dishes that strike you are simple, pure flavors set off by quaverous notes of fermentation, with textures you linger over. The soft tofu that Chang makes has a fried potato-starch cap, elastic in the way braised chicken skin gets. Seared hamachi collar has a fierce reptilian look and the thinnest veil of miso-mirin glaze; it atomizes under chopstick tips, a puff of downlike flakes. Salmon-belly skewers dissolve like sticky butter and tastes like clean fish oil.

The sauces, pickles, and fermented vegetables seem less the result of applying process to ingredients and more like bending the rogue and ineluctable forces of nature to create culture, or in this case kimchi. I have worse than a hippie’s understanding of Eastern spirituality, but there’s something about what Chang and his cooks do—in the amazing banchan, the array of pickles and kimchi made with mustard greens, breakfast radishes, fennel, and bok choy (leaves for kimchi, crowns for pickles), the stuff in the markets here in spring—that feels vital, charged up with what I guess you'd call qi.

"IT'S LIKE YOUR SPIRIT"
I read somewhere how Ellen Chang said that the name FuseBox wasn’t a reference to fusion cuisine, but to an actual fusebox, a device to buffer the otherwise unmanageable power of electricity. A fusebox is a mediator between a great force and a useful, delightful end, which is the true and proper function of a cook (at least a humble one).

FuseBox is one of maybe two Bay Area restaurants that makes its own gojuchang, the Korean fermented paste of chiles, rice, and soybeans, in a process that is perpetually ongoing (Sunhui makes two styles). First thing Chang does when he gets up is tend to his onggi, his four to six cheesecloth-capped earthenware fermenting jars lined up on the back deck at home, taking off the lids; last thing he does at night is cover them up again. Gojuchang is ubiquitous in the restaurant’s sauces and marinades, the brick-red blood-paste that runs through it. I believe his gojuchang bears Sunhui Chang’s own particular hand-juice. That’s a concept his wife, Ellen, described one day.

Ellen has roots in Mississippi. Her grandmother cooked delicious neck bones and potatoes, but even after Ellen followed her recipes exactly they didn’t taste the same. Ellen: “She’d say, ‘That’s because they have my hand-juice.’ It’s like your spirit, your own way of doing things. She’d tell me, ‘You’ll make something else that has your hand-juice.’”

Ellen is a hand-juice connoisseur. “So many restaurants I go to nowadays, I always say, ‘I can taste their concept,’ but I’m not necessarily tasting them…what they can do. What they believe in.” I get it. A place like Miss Ollie’s, another Oakland restaurant, where Chef Sarah Kirnon is cooking the food she tasted as a kid in the Caribbean, and over the pass is a portrait of her grandmother and another of Edna Lewis—these are restaurants that feel untroubled by the pressure to please investors with a particularly marketable concept, that feel personal and vital, with erratic hours if that’s just how it has to be to keep things going the way they should.

Out here on Oakland’s fringe, Sunhui Chang cooks with grace, like cooking’s only a borrowed art and he’ll have to give it back someday the way he found it, or better. That's life on Kitchen Dick Road.

FuseBox [West Oakland]
2311-A Magnolia Street, Oakland
510-444-3100

Photos by Chris Rochelle