Hidden Kimchi: Sam’s Teriyaki, Fairfield, Calif.
Hubby and I did not expect to end up in the north San Francisco Bay Area city of Fairfield the Sunday before Memorial Day — really. Nor did we set out to find one of that city’s best-loved Korean food joints.
Our original plan was to take a leisurely trip to tourist-oriented downtown Napa to check out a newly opened — about 3 months old — Korean-Japanese restaurant in an increasingly upscale shopping center. However, those best-laid plans died upon discovering the restaurant closed with an unsanctimonious notice taped to the front door, saying the establishment was “reevaluating” the menu. There was no notice of this on Yelp, Foursquare, the restsaurant’s Facebook page or other social media.
We could have just returned home dejected or stopped at a familiar hanshik haunt on the way back. Rather, we digitally scouted the area for “nearby Korean food” for something new. Social media reviews pointed us to Sam’s Teriyaki in Fairfield, about 20 miles east by road from Napa.
Don’t let the name fool you. Sam’s Teriyaki is a not a Japanese restaurant. Though there are a few teriyaki and other cuisine items on the menu, this 20-plus-year-old Korean-run restaurant has more Korean and hanshik-inspired items than not. This restaurant certainly fits my ongoing Hidden Kimchi series of reviews of establishments with hanshik that aren’t marketed as being Korean.
Sam’s Teriyaki is located on Texas Street, one of Fairfield’s main roads. It’s very unassuming shell — the “T” is missing from the “Teriyaki” sign on the tired, decades-old building — would make it very easy to miss if your weren’t on the hunt for this restaurant.
We were prepared for that based on a hilariously helpful Yelp review:
“This place is a dive but the food is worth diving for.” —Rosemarie B., who has checked in there 13 times
The seating is basic with six tables and three booths for seating, which would seat around 25 people at full capacity. Several ceiling fans are spinning gingerly in the small restaurant, but the air conditioning kept place cool on a steamy late May evening. I suspect the location had a prior life as a pizza joint, because what appears to be a brick pizza oven takes up a good part of the kitchen.
The restaurant has a photo menu on the wall. Yet a couple of chicken dishes — spicy chicken BBQ (No. 3) and chicken bulgogi (No. 7) — appeared to use the exact same photo. I asked one of the proprietors which one tasted most like Chuncheon dakgalbi, the renowned specialty of a northeastern South Korean city in which we taught English. She recommended No. 7. We also ordered bulgogi, a side of “sushi” and two drinks.
Brought out first was the “sushi,” which was actually 김밥 kimbap, made with imitation crab (pollack), yellow radish, carrot and cucumber. The only thing Japanese about it was the side of wasabi. My hubby, who claims he doesn’t like kimbap because of the seaweed, ate half the order before I had a chance to take my first bite and enjoyed it.
What's the difference between kimbap and sushi?
Accompanying the meals were raw cabbage salad covered with an oregano-heavy creamy Italian dressing. Some patrons on Yelp replaced the salad with a double order of sautéed carrots and cabbage or with kimchi. A blast of oregano might the the palate off balance when one is expecting authentic Korean flavors, but it seemed like a bold a palate cleanser.
We ordered a side of kimchi with our meal as well. In the States, kimchi served in restaurants or available at stores tends to be quite mild. This kimchi was the first restaurant kimchi we’ve eaten outside of Korea that pleasantly held onto its residual heat long after the initial bite.
The chicken bulgogi seems to be teriyaki-marinated chicken with a generous bath of sweet 고추장 gochujang (spicy red chili paste) goodness.
The bulgogi (No. 10 on the menu) was grilled nicely in a well-balanced sweet, salty and savory sauce. I’ve had a number of bulgogi dishes in restaurants and packaged meals that go toward one extreme or another. Some are very sweet, while some are have too much soy sauce in the marinade. Yet the bulgogi at Sam’s hits it straight down the middle.
Dinner prices range from $7–$12.50. For lunch, there are three $5.50 lunch specials, and the rest of the dishes range in price up to $10.
The menu has more than 20 items. There are several styles of grilled beef, including bulgogi, kalbi, and spicy beef. For chicken, there teriyaki and spicy barbecue options. If you like pork, they have Korean-style barbecued ribs, hickory-smoked ribs and sautéed meat with kimchi (돼지볶음 dweji bokkeum). One of the few shrimp or prawn options is Prawns Bordelaise.
1657 N. Texas St.
Fairfield, CA 94533
Hours: Monday–Sunday, 11 a.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Getting there: Interstate 80 to Fairfield. Exit at Travis Boulevard, and turn east. Turn left at Texas Street. The restaurant is on the left just past the Grocery Outlet store.
Yelp page: yelp.com/biz/sams-teriyaki-fairfield-2