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Jang Su Jang

Santa Clara’s Jang Su Jang serves unusual Korean treat army base soup

SPAM turns up in the darnedest places. Spam, that gelatinized wonder of ham in a can, has long been a staple of the American diet, but we’re not the only culture to fancy the processed meat product.

Spam became a hit in Hawaii when large quantities of the Hormel product were shipped to the state to help feed military personnel during World War II. It became a favorite with a local population that already had a taste for pork. The fact that Spam kept well in the tropical heat helped, too. Spam and eggs and Spam masubi are now classics of Hawaiian food.

A similar story played out in South Korea. As the story goes, surplus American military food like Spam, hot dogs and day-glo American cheese wound up in South Korean markets, and locals adapted the products to Korean taste and birthed a new dish: budae jjigae. The spicy soup of Spam, hot dogs, American cheese, cheap ramen noodles and kimchi is also known as Johnson Tang (after the widely recognized American name and the Korean word for soup) and, more literally, army base stew.

Is it authentically Korean? If it is made in Korea by Koreans, I say yes. It is cultural adaptation and culinary evolution in a bowl. There’s even a town in Korea than celebrates the dish. In spite of Santa Clara’s vibrant Korean restaurant scene, the dish is not widely available here, but I found a hulking bowl of the stuff ($12.99) at Jang Su Jang.

Although army base stew is based on lowly ingredients that you could find at any corner market, the soup is surprisingly good. Instead of a culture clash, the Eastern and Western ingredients blend well. The cheese seems to melt into the bowl to give the spicy, chile paste–loaded broth a nacho cheese color and a creamy, round texture that takes the edge off the heat. The tangy kimchi helps balance the richness of the Spam and hot dog. Chunks of tofu add an element of protein neutrality. It’s a satisfying, homey, pleasurable bowl of soup.

Jang Su Jang has plenty to offer beyond army base stew. There’s the typical lineup of Korean barbecue and a long list of soondobu, bubbling pots of spicy soft tofu stew. The seafood soondobu ($9.99) comes with shrimp and calamari and is a solid version of this warming, filling dish.

The restaurant also offers several versions of dumplings, the best being the turnover-size wang mandoo ($8.99), huge boiled dumplings filled with a mix of beef, pork and seafood. And don’t miss the seafood pancake appetizer ($13.99), a jumble of seafood bound together in a light, barely there batter.

Come summertime, an icy bowl of cold mul naeng myun noodles is one of my favorite things. The tangy, brightly flavored beef broth and chilled buckwheat noodles are perfect for hot weather. Jang Su Jang has mul naeng myun ($10.99), but what intrigued me was the bowl of chilled acorn noodles with vegetables and soy sauce. Korean food makes wide use of alternative forms of flour such as buckwheat and arrowroot, but the acorn flour was a first for me. The thin noodles don’t taste particularly different, but they’re delicate, slippery and delicious. With the scattering of vegetables (cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, sliced sesame leaves), it’s really a cold noodle salad. The soy-sesame dressing tossed with it all is refreshing and light.

Korean food is often meat-heavy, so I found the spicy beef soup with hand-cut noodles light on the beef but still full of beefy flavor. The wheat flour noodles are served in a shallow but wide bowl in a smoldering chile-paste broth with egg, shiitake mushrooms and a few strands of tender beef.

Jang Su Jang is located in the Korean-business-dominated Lawrence Plaza, and it’s a sharp-looking place with its dark-wood interior, private rooms with sliding doors and a water fountain near the entrance. It’s popular, too, so if you’re with a group, plan to wait. But with army surplus–inspired soup, acorn flour noodles and a wide range of Korean food in between, it’s worth the wait.

Jang Su Jang
3561 El Camino Real, Santa Clara
Daily 11am–10pm