The latest addition to the Excelsior dining scene is Hwaro, a family-owned Korean restaurant located in the former Goldilocks space on Mission Street. It’s already drawing positive reviews from San Francisco’s online foodie community.
“I’ve been searching for a space for over a year,” co-owner Ina JungIn Lee said. “When I found this one, I thought, ‘This is it.’”
Fried chicken, bento lunch boxes, taco trios featuring bulgogi and pork belly are all part of a menu that combines classic Korean fare with bar bites and updated fusion dishes. The evening offerings include a variety of small plates, including rice cake skewers, corn cheese (a Western-inspired Korean favorite, and exactly what it sounds like) as well as vegetables like King Oyster mushrooms and asparagus, along with classics like barbeque, ramen and “Hangover soup.”
“I’m so happy that a completely new place opened up in the old Goldilocks location,” said Geordie E, who lives two blocks away. “It’s refreshing to have something different from taquerias & pupuserias. Don’t get me wrong, we still love and go to those places, but Hwaro brings something refreshing and new to the table.”
Ina, a former art director and graphic designer who still runs both her own design firm and Bi Bim Bar, a quick-serve Korean restaurant located in the International Food Court at Geary and Bush Streets, designed the sleek, modern space.
“We wanted to bring something new for people,” Ina said. “Very clean and simple decor, so you can focus on eating.”
Ina’s brother, Ryan Lee, works as head chef, and has over ten years experience in both Korean and Japanese cooking. Along with their mother, who created and inspired many of the original recipes and works in Hwaro’s kitchen, the business is totally family-owned.
Edison-bulb chandeliers, high and low tables, and colorful throw pillows in a lounging area make the space. An angular wood bar wraps around one corner of the restaurant, while the opposite side features a window seat and smaller tables made for lounging.
Hwaro quietly opened in August, with a grand opening in late September, and plans to acquire an alcohol license for beer and wine pairings, along with more cosmetic changes, are on their way. The Lees are also excited to provide soju cocktails, along with makgeolli, an unfiltered fermented Korean alcoholic drink, usually made from rice.
A lunch-time vegetarian bento box was plentiful and hearty, with plenty of tofu and vegetables in a flavorful homemade gochujang-like sauce, crispy gyoza, rice with azuki beans, peppery cellophane noodles, a small salad and a fresh-tasting kimchi.
“Ryan wants to make sure everyone has at least one option,” said waitress Mari Erdel of the vegetarian options, which may expand as menus change.
Traditional Korean restaurants usually offer patrons an array of banchan, or small dishes, before a meal. At Hwaro, the focus is on quality, not quantity, and to eliminate the food waste often associated with the many tiny uneaten plates, Lee chose to include some of the marinated vegetables and other classic banchan dishes alongside the main meal.
“This is the only Korean restaurant in the neighborhood,” said Ryan. “But we don’t have a lot on the menu compared to other Korean restaurants” where menus can be many pages long.
Finding an appropriate space with a large-enough kitchen to accommodate all the work that goes into from-scratch Korean food, and all the marination and fermentation that comes with it, was difficult. Though Ina, who lives in Hayes Valley, had never been to the Excelsior before, she was thrilled to find the large, open space, with its equally large kitchen, vacated by Goldilocks earlier this year. Prepping the space took around five months, but, unlike many properties in the neighborhood, it didn’t require major work to bring it up to code for food service.
There are still changes to be made — further cosmetic improvements as well as updates to the menu, including weekly or daily specials — which may or may not be Korean style.
“We’re still getting comfortable,” said Ryan.
Hwaro is located at 4516 Mission St. It’s open from Tuesday to Sunday. For more information, call (415) 859-7111.
This article first appeared in The Light’s October 2016 print edition.