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Jay Caspian Kang Loves Bay Area Food — But Isn’t Shy About Bashing It

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A masked server brings an order of galbi (Korean grilled short ribs) to the table when a man hunches over his food. A logo in the middle of the image reads, "¡Hella Hungry!"
Berkeley author Jay Caspian Kang (left) receives an order of galbi at GangNam Tofu in El Cerrito. The restaurant is one of Kang's local favorites because it serves "standard Korean food" prepared well.  (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

¡Hella Hungry! is a series of interviews with Bay Area foodmakers exploring the region’s culinary innovations through the mouth of a first-generation local.

Inside Gangnam Tofu, a destination-worthy Korean restaurant in an otherwise unremarkable El Cerrito strip mall, Jay Caspian Kang orders a round of shareable dishes — galbi, honey-cheese fried chicken and budae jjigae (a wartime-era stew of mixed meats and noodles) — for us to split. As the lunch crowd pours in behind him, Kang tells me why he likes Gangnam over most other Asian eateries in the area: “I just want to eat standard Korean food that’s prepared well.”

Though he surprisingly prefers his spicy food mild, the Korean-born podcast host, novelist and New Yorker staff writer serves plenty of hot takes on everything from the shortcomings of technology (he’s an aspiring luddite) to the most underrated rap albums of the past quarter century (he stands with Mos Def in the internet feud against Drake). And when it comes to the hypocrisies of Bay Area politics, he especially doesn’t hold back.

Best known for articles he’s written for national publications such as the New Yorker, Kang has lived in Berkeley since 2019. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Having settled in Berkeley after years of living in New York City and Los Angeles, Kang has developed a genuine appreciation for the Bay Area’s microcultures. Despite growing up on the East Coast and often writing about topics of national interest, Kang has in many ways become a quintessential Northern Californian: In his free time, you might find him surfing or wandering the aisles at Berkeley Bowl.

And yet, he’s also someone who brings a worldly outsider’s unflinching perspective to controversial Bay Area topics such as the housing crisis and affirmative action. He’ll even let you know that the Asian food in Las Vegas is better than the Bay Area’s.

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Perhaps our region needs that tough love now more than ever.

While talking to the sports-loving dad and low-key hip-hop historian about the highs and lows of Bay Area living, I remembered why I love this quirky region so deeply, despite its complex truths. Here’s what everyone’s favorite Tyler Hansborough evangelist and reformed online troll has to say about the state of the Bay — and its food offerings — in these precarious times.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Alan Chazaro: You were born in Korea, grew up in North Carolina and have lived in a ton of places. How long have you been in the Bay Area?

Jay Caspian Kang: I went to college in New England, and then I went to New York for grad school. But after that, I moved out to California and lived here in San Francisco for six, seven years. I was working as a high school teacher. Then I moved to L.A., back to New York, and then right before the pandemic we moved back out here to Berkeley. It’s been four years now. 

Hand pointing to the "honey cheese chicken" on Korean restaurant menu.
Perusing the menu at GangNam Tofu . (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

You’ve written about your passion for surfing in the Bay. What draws you to that?

I’m not a good surfer, but yeah, I spend most of my time thinking about surfing.  For years, I just went to Ocean Beach all the time, and you get used to it and, you know, you learn how to avoid trouble. I go once or twice a week. That’s the only way you can do it: You have to prioritize it. Or else, if you don’t, then you don’t ever go. If I get a Zoom call, I’ll just cancel that. You have to live with some of the consequences after, but surfing is very necessary for my mental well-being.

It sounds like you’ve reached some kind of Zen mindstate. Did you achieve that when you were living in Los Angeles?

I don’t really like to drive. And I’ve never liked Hollywood culture. I just find that the people I vibe most with are generally up here.

Who do you think is a good example of the Bay Area’s creativity and open-mindedness?

Look at MC Hammer. He grew up doing that boogaloo style of dancing in East Oakland. He downloaded that as a kid. He blew it up into worldwide fame in a modified kind of way. Now that he’s old, his presence on social media is just showing all these old videos of guys from his neighborhood dancing. I find it amazing that he’s willing to go back and show these kids from his block who were his influences, and he’s basically showing how that made him who he is. That’s community, music coming out of community. He’s interesting because he’s like the most Oakland dude ever, but he’s not always seen as being affiliated with that (laughs). 

Kang and KQED reporter Alan Chazaro put in their order. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

The Bay is weird like that. There’s a lot of different characters here.

It is weird. It’s interesting how someone like E-40 has become this sort of mascot as a rapper. He’s the dude. He’s like an entire persona. And people love him because he goes to all the games. I’ve never seen Too $hort at a game. 

Did you grow up listening to a lot of Bay Area rap out on the East Coast?

I grew up listening to whatever you imagine a 44-year-old man would listen to (laughs). A Tribe Called Quest. Wu-Tang. Mobb Deep. Then you had the Bay Area, so there was like “Blowjob Betty” or whatever, and you would listen to it, and it was crazy because it was just so nasty. Luniz, Del [the Funky Homosapien].

Del is the one I personally listened to the most. I still listen to him. The Deltron 3030 album is brilliant. The production on that album is fucking crazy. The whole concept is weird. [Bay Area producer] Dan the Automator had been messing with concept albums for a while. That was just a cool kind of rap with enough label support to make weird shit. That was before MF DOOM and all those dudes. It’s like Del imagining the future, and Del is awesome. He kills it. That album is low-key one of the 20 best rap albums ever. I hesitate to put it higher because is it as important as, say, KRS One? I don’t know. Listening to those KRS One albums can feel like you’re just doing your homework. I bet more people enjoyed Deltron 3030.

What’s more Bay Area than an Asian American producer teaming up with a nerdy Black dude from East Oakland to make a futuristic album about a fictional dystopian society?

Totally. And these guys were getting deeply influenced by the shit that’s happening with Filipino DJs in Daly City. Every city has some version of that, but it’s so interesting in the Bay because it really is so multiracial. 

I wonder if the Bay Area still represents that as much as it once did. You commented on the whole fiasco with TikTok food critic Keith Lee’s recent Bay Area visit. He said the Bay is “not a place for tourists” right now. What do you think about that?

There’s no question that the Bay Area is going through a difficult time right now. If Keith Lee went to the Tenderloin and parts of East Oakland, which it seems like he did — or even if he went to 24th and Mission, which is highly trafficked — people when they come to the Bay Area and see that, it’s shocking to them. You have to be real about it. You don’t see that in New York. You see it in L.A. but it’s mostly in the Skid Row area. 

The Bay Area has had these issues for a long time, but it was more contained and it didn’t feel like it was as big of a problem. When I moved to San Francisco around 2002, I got off BART at 16th Street. I was like, Wow, this is kind of wild. And now that has really expanded to a lot of places where a lot more people go. So in the Bay, you get these people coming for conferences or just visiting to see Fisherman’s Wharf, and chances are the hotel is going to be in Union Square or directly in the Tenderloin. So when you leave your hotel, you’re seeing really bad shit. That shocks outsiders and contributes to an unfair narrative. If you put all of the hotels in L.A. on Skid Row, everyone would be saying the same thing about L.A. But at the same time, I think it’s good to bring attention to this problem: We have completely out-of-control homelessness in one of the richest cities in America, and that paradox and contradiction is impossible to resolve.

The way out of it is going to be super messy and will create reactionary elements. People like [San Fransicko author] Michael Shellenberger believe all these drug addicts should just be put in jail. London Breed sometimes feels that way, too. But I think overall, those people are underestimating that the San Francisco Bay Area is a very progressive place. They will never accept us locking up these people. And that’s a good thing. The idea that you’re going to lock up the poor and throw away the key, it’s just not going to happen. Right now we’re in a period of extremes: of extreme cynicism and despair. And for good reason, because it’s fucking bad, you know? But I still wouldn’t trade places with anyone to live somewhere else in this country. It’s a trade-off.

Gangnam Tofu’s version of budae jjigae is a soft tofu stew loaded with sausage and noodles. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Despite our struggles, there’s so much to discover here and so many pockets of rich culture. You actually had a take that most of the Asian food in the Bay Area is bad, outside of in San Jose. I’m not sure many outsiders, or even locals, would voice that.

So here’s the thing. This is just my theory. Immigrant food is only really good in a certain time period after the people who are making it have immigrated here. For example, new Chinese populations in the United States will have much better food in their restaurants, and in those areas where they are living, than older, established Chinese populations. And the reason for that is very simple. It’s that food on the mainland continues to evolve, right? But the immigrants who have been living here for decades don’t. They’re frozen in time.

My parents left Korea in 1978, and they never go back except for a little visit throughout 25 years. And by 1999, their understanding of Korean cuisine is basically frozen in 1978, because every single other person who owns a Korean restaurant also came around that same time, because there was a big wave of immigration from ’75 to ’79. I know that in San Francisco you have a multi-generational embedded Chinese population. But at this point, like, what are we even eating? 

A lot of Chinese restaurants [in San Francisco] feel like they’re a movie set or something. It’s very charming, but it’s very old school. In the Richmond, there are places you can find that are exceptions to that. But right now, the cradle for the best Chinese food is from Cupertino to Mountain View, all around Silicon Valley. And the reason for that is because there are a lot of new Chinese immigrants that are coming to work there. In addition to that, there’s this Vietnamese mall culture in San Jose. It’s getting a little old-fashioned, but it’s still super vibrant. 

I just don’t find anything like that out here in the East Bay. We have taqueros in people’s backyards, and that’s very distinct and fully immigrant-driven, so that feels fresh in the cycle. But with Korean food, you have all these restaurants, but the issue is that they’ve all been here for so long that nothing has been updated. They’re basically selling food from the ’80s — but Korean food updates, even the standard dishes. When something comes straight from there and lands here, it feels exciting. That doesn’t happen as much up here as it does around San Jose. The restaurants down there are fire. Unfortunately I can’t go to Cupertino for lunch.

Two men seated across from each other inside a Korean restaurant.
Many Korean restaurants in the Bay Area are selling a version of Korean food that has been frozen in time since the 1980s, Kang says. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

So what are you working on next? What’s on your mind as a locally-based journalist with a national platform?

I write a lot about homelessness, so I’d like to continue to write and think about that. There’s tiny amounts of progress finally being made. It’s actually better than it was. For years here, we kind of felt like it could only get worse. But there are tiny indications things are getting a little bit better, that some of these interventions are working. People are just going to have to get used to the idea that the hotel down the street from their house where nobody ever stayed, that’s now a place for the people in the encampment that you didn’t like. They now live there. If you don’t like that, then I’m sorry. Obviously it’s going to take many, many years. And so following that is very interesting to me. They actually are reversing this thing that seems impossible to fix. I’m also going to write a lot about the upcoming election. 

You’ve had a decades-long career in this industry, which is currently struggling as layoffs are decimating newsrooms across the country. What keeps you going?

I feel the need to write a lot. I used to write very infrequently, and I found that I actually enjoyed writing much more. It’s a way to organize one’s life. Having something to put out and putting it out feels good. Sometimes it’s not great, because you might only have a week to do it. But I’m learning to be fine with that and understanding the job is not to make everything perfect. I’ve really embraced that.

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Gangnam Tofu Korean Cuisine (11740 San Pablo Ave. Suite C, El Cerrito) is open Mon.–Fri. from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Sat. and Sun. from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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