You never forget your first time... eating Korean food, that is. From the smoky-spicy meats to the pungent sour tang of fermented cabbage, it's like getting punched repeatedly with intense and surprising flavors, and liking it. We may not have the breadth of L.A.'s Koreatown, but there are no shortage of options, from melt-your-face-off barbecue tables to noodles sauced in fermented black beans. Here are our top 12 spots for Korean food in San Francisco and Oakland, in no particular order.

photo credit: Lauren Sloss

Han Il Kwan
Everyone has their go-to Korean barbecue joint, and Han Il Kwan is ours. Snag a table with a grill and prepare to get the meat sweats — you have to order at least two massive plates of meat to be grilled, but the gluttony is well worth it. Spicy pork and bulgogi are tops, but we were recently impressed by a non-barbecue stir-fry option — tender, meaty octopus stir-fried with ample amount of gojujang. The generous selection of banchan is consistently tasty, as are the free green onion pancakes and tofu stew. Plan on washing it all down with soju and cold, big bottles of Hite.
1802 Balboa St.

photo credit: Peek

Prepare to show up early or wait at Manna, an Inner Sunset institution and, arguably, one of the best spots for quality Korean food in the Bay Area. What sets Manna apart? Their incredible kimchi, for one — the perfect balance of heat and funk, salt and crunch will have you begging them for extra to take home and put on everything. Other stand-outs include their spicy-hot tofu stew (perfect for a cold San Francisco night), pancakes of both the veggie and seafood variety, and their kimchi fried rice. Do yourself a favor and order extra of the latter to keep in the fridge — it's one of the best hangover foods out there.
845 Irving St.

photo credit: Telstar Logistics

Any restaurant past 11 p.m., let alone 1 a.m. is worth it's weight in cold in this city. Enter Toyose, a bad ass Korean joint in a garage (!) in the Outer Sunset that stays open until 3 a.m. Uh huh, you hear us: 3. A.M. What's more, their brand of sizzling hot, just-greasy-enough grub is as delicious sober as it is in the wee hours of the morning. It is meant to be drinking food (see: their extensive list of flavored sojus, which we cannot, in good conscience, recommend... but whatever, you do you!), and stellar spicy, saucy fried chicken wings, massive boiling casserole pots filled with instant ramen noodles and hot dogs, and thick-fried seafood pancakes attest to the drinking-friendly nature of the food.
3814 Noriega St.

photo credit: Gary Soup

Aria Korean American Snack Bar
A tiny little gem of an eatery, Aria makes some of the best fried chicken in the city, hands down. Their boneless chunks of dark and white meat are coated with a hint of turmeric and curry, then fried to a greaseless crisp. Served up with awesomely funky pickled radishes, these are the Korean-flavored chicken nuggets that adult dreams are made of. Also awesome: spicy rice cakes with ramen noodles. This is good take-out fare, but the couple who runs the joint are pretty wonderful, and they have a record player on hand for your soundtracking pleasure.
932 Larkin St.

photo credit: wonggawei

Namu Gaji
Dennis Lee is, without a doubt, the OG of San Francisco's Korean-fusion cuisine. From his now-legendary Korean tacos (found at the Ferry Building on farmers market days), served on nori and topped with kimchee salsa and remoulade, to his seasonal, farm-driven takes on traditional flavors at Namu Gaji, his food is a creative, flavorful, and San Francisco version of Korean food. You'll see other cultural elements in his dishes, but we think he knocks it out of the park with iterations of Korean fried chicken, bibimbap (in the form of a stone pot rice bowl topped with gojujang and an egg), and housemade pickles. Oh, there are the gamja fries, which are a must-order of sometimes they run out — they're topped with tangy Kewpie mayo, gojujang, kimchi, and bulgogi.
499 Dolores St.

photo credit: bubbletea1

HRD Coffee Shop
If Namu hints at the stoner-satisfying potential of Korean fusion, HRD Coffee Shop takes it to a whole new level of eat-this-when-you-have-the-munchies magic. Go big with dishes like the kimchee burrito, stuffed with well-spiced meat, kiwi, sour cream and pickled daikon; more traditional bibimbap with kimchi and a runny egg; or even an oyster po' boy doused in kimchi aioli and kimchi coleslaw. You could get a bibimbap salad, if you were feeling healthy, but why would you?
521A 3rd St.

photo credit: I am Jeffrey

A family-run gem in the Inner Richmond, Muguboka is the spot for filling portions, solid banchan (including a free seafood pancake!), and excellent iterations of classics like japchae (stir-fried glass noodles, made from sweet potato) and galbi jjim (beef short ribs cooked with carrots and potatoes). They're also one of the few Korean restaurants around that has gamjatang — a rich, warming soup made with pork spine. The real thing to know here is their awesome lunch deal — you can get a tofu soup and bulgogi or chicken for $13.
401 Balboa St.

photo credit: mrjoro

My Tofu House
If you're tofu-averse, or know those who are (is that even allowed in the Bay Area?), get thee to My Tofu House, an appropriate place to reeducate yourself on the matter. First, tofu doesn't have to be a meat substitute — it can be paired with meat, and seafood, to great success. Second, really, really good silken tofu is kind of orgasmically good. Here, the tofu stews all feature wonderfully silky, melt-in-your mouth tofu, plus your choice of proteins and spice levels. We go back and forth on the bulgogi and the seafood, but kmichi is a must, and spicy is usually a good idea.
4627 Geary Blvd.

photo credit: Pete Kane

Jin Mi
A Korean version of a family-run, neighborhood diner, Jin Mi is the place for unostentatious, filling, and tasty classics. From stone pot bibimbap to spicy fried chicken wings and kimchi fried rice with bulgogi, the fare here is straightforward, inexpensive, and of course, served with a healthy amount of accompanying banchan. Their kimchi is killer, too, and should be applied liberally to everything that you order.
366 Golden Gate Ave.

photo credit: moriza

Yuyu Za Zang
Score zazang, jajjang, or jajung myun at this Oakland spot for handmade Korean and Chinese noodle dishes. Zazang, a noodle dish topped with an oil-black sludge of fermented black beans, vegetables, and pork, can be hard to come by, but this Chinese-influenced dish hits all of the right flavor notes — funky and salty with a hint of rich sweetness from the pork, just say yes and begin mixing your noodles into the sauce with abandon. We like ours spicy, but start with the classic zazang myun to really get a sense of the flavor — those fresh noodles do wonders, too. Mandoo (dumplings) are worth sampling, too.
3919 Telegraph Ave, Oakland

photo credit: swayinglights

Jong Ga House
What do we love most about Jong Ga House in Lake Merritt? Is their deft hand with fried fish, the variety of their table top cooking, or the all-you-can-eat barbecue (for just $20.99 per person)? It depends on the day. Our one must-order here is the dak galbi, a cook-it-yourself stir fry of boneless chicken, spicy-sweet pepper sauce, cabbage, and unctuous, chewy rice cakes. But that's just one dish on a 100+ item menu, making each visit to Jong Ga a new kind of overeating adventure.
372 Grand Ave., Oakland

photo credit: FuseBox

A relatively new entrant in our favorite Korean fusion category, West Oakland's FuseBox can be counted on for consistently delicious, creative versions of Korean and Japanese food. The menu changes with some frequency, but their Korean fried chicken, Busan (pork belly torta), and multiple types (often up to 9!) of housemade kimchis are always fantastic. Also great: bacon-wrapped mochi. Come with a group and order as much as you can stomach.

2311A Magnolia Street, Oakland