There are days when I crave, long for, the pungent spicy tang of kimchi. The kind my mom used to make, with raw oysters, Asian pear and the best gochugaru — a deep red pepper flake that looks more like rough coffee grounds, rather than the stuff you put on pizza — that my aunt would sometimes send us from Korea. I haven’t had that kimchi in years but the memory is still burned on my tongue.
These days, even Safeway carries jars of kimchi, and I have bought them — desperate times call for desperate kimchi. Fortunately, I live closer to Koreana Plaza, the big Korean market in KONO, where there are more and better choices than sad, anemic jars of King’s kimchi. But I’ve found an even better option for when kimchi cravings strike, just a short drive away in Montclair Village, where EM Deli & Catering opened in November.
EM Deli is now found on La Salle Avenue in the former AG Ferrari storefront, but some may remember its roots in downtown Oakland, which span farther than 20 years. Co-owner Eric Kim once was the manager at Eugene Market, a small Korean grocery store on 14th Street in downtown Oakland. He later became the owner, changing its name to EM Market. In 2014, Kim brought on his friend, Seungguk Han, and together, they expanded the business to offer catering. In 2016, they opened a second location in Downtown San Francisco. Meanwhile, the friends started looking for a new space in Oakland. Han said, “We were looking for more foot traffic to grow our business and also parking was tough in downtown Oakland.” They were charmed by “the small town feeling Montclair Village,” he said.
The shop is more of a takeout spot, akin to a French traiteur, rather than a sit-down restaurant. There is one table in the front the store, near the window, but I haven’t seen anyone sit there to eat on my visits. Upon entering, on the right side of the space, you’ll find shelves of Korean staples — including countless packages of Korean instant ramen, bags of rice, mixes to make savory Korean pancakes and cans of Spam — interspersed by refrigerator cases filled with kimchi and tofu. In the back, there are more refrigerators, with drinks.
On the left side, there’s a deli counter, where catering orders can be made and ready-to-eat hot foods are offered. These include doep bap (rice bowls), kimbap (Korean sushi rolls, usually stuffed with vegetables and cooked meats, rather than raw fish), Korean fried chicken, stews and soups. There’s also an open refrigerated case filled with small, flat plastic packages of banchan.
Along with accessible and easy-to-identify side dishes for Korean food newbs, there are banchan that more advanced eaters will be excited about, like marinated doraji muchim (spicy bellflower root), gosari namul (fern) and one of my favorites, yangneyeom gejang (raw blue crab marinated in a spicy sauce).
The deli foods are prepared by a staff of Korean ajuma (which loosely translates to “Auntie,” and doesn’t necessarily mean a woman who’s a family member), who’ve brought their own recipes to the business, but which Han and Kim have tweaked to use local and seasonal ingredients. Not surprisingly, EM’s popular dishes are familiar ones, like bulgogi over rice, kimbap and kimchi fried rice.
So far, the neighbors have given EM Deli a warm welcome to the neighborhood, and Han said many in the area are happy to find a good variety of Asian market items and a new place for take-out foods and catering services. The store has started a punch card promotion, where after buying 10 hot food items, customers will get a free item.
“Surprisingly there are many Koreans, second generations of Korean Americans who are missing Korean food. Also, many non-Korean customers seem to be somehow familiar with Korean food and culture. Many of them know kimchi, bulgogi, kimbap and they ask about Korean drama and K-pops,” Han said. To satisfy those Koreaphiles, the deli airs K-pop music video all day long. “Kids seem to enjoy it,” he said. “They also like our Korean snacks a lot.”
On my first visit, I bought a medium-sized package of fresh napa kimchi. It wasn’t mom’s, but it’s the best store-bought kimchi I’ve had in Oakland. A bright red, garlicky pepper sauce smothers firm, fresh napa cabbage leaves, still white and opaque, rather than a tired, translucent yellow hue, which denotes overly ripe and fermented versions (ripe kimchi is great for making fried rice and kimchi stew, but too tangy to eat plain, for my taste). Despite its vibrancy and crunch, which often means a not-so-flavorful and unfermented kimchi, the flavors and spice had deeply penetrated into the cabbage and there was a slight effervescent fizz. I could detect it was made with saeujot, a fermented Korean shrimp, which adds a briny dimension to kimchi that you don’t get in vegetarian versions (sorry, veg friends, but it’s true).
This is kimchi worth driving around in circles with the hopes of finding parking in the tiny village of Montclair.