Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman is a favorite recent read of mine. In the novel, a woman comes to the conclusion that she is the soul of the convenience store in which she works. Her identity isn’t just tied to her day job. She believes she has the ability to hear what the store needs, in terms of cleanliness and orderliness, and how those qualities will ensure the store’s success. On one hand, it’s a scathing commentary about capitalism’s power to absorb an individual’s identity. On the other hand, it’s a Marie Kondo fantasy of someone’s ability to organize a retail space.
I’m not suggesting that the owners and employees of Korean Superette share anything in common with Murata’s protagonist. However, I do think she would approve of the way this hybrid shop and restaurant is arranged, shelf by shelf by shelf.
Inside Korean Superette, a packet of tteokbokki, or red rice cakes, is only one of a seemingly endless array of imported packaged snack foods, condiments, novelties and even stationery. An illustrated almond smiles on the tteokbokki wrapping as he, himself, settles into a bowl of cylindrical rice cakes. In this cartoon drawing, they resemble the cinnamon candy Hot Tamales. The almond’s tiny stick arm has secured one on a fork. To his right, the only rice cake with a face is standing upright, either playing a musical instrument for the happy almond or grating spice into the bowl. Regardless, they both seem to be enjoying themselves.
Solano Avenue diners will remember the revamped space as the longtime home of Rivoli, but they won’t recognize it. The “superette” is essentially two walls of the dining room. A third wall is lined with refrigerators containing any number of banchan, neatly arranged in small containers.
As one walks towards the dining room that doubles as the superette, the kitchen suddenly appears on the left just past the entrance. Once seated inside, one can catch the scents of dishes cooking around the corner. Curious passersby can wander in and grab handfuls of to-go items from the superette or give in to the temptation to sit down for a full meal. A wall of windows faces outside, where tables and chairs also await diners beneath a canopy of well-established trees. At dusk, the setting is idyllic if intermittently buggy.
The menu is succinct and yet full of wonders. From soup noodles ($10.99) to rice bowls ($14.99), the kitchen produces dishes with precision and clarity. The food is so good I worry that I won’t be able to eat dinner there again without having to wait in a very long line.
One can add several proteins ($3) to a bowl of miso ramen soup, beef, chicken, pork, seafood or tofu. The broth is creamy and hearty, while avoiding the common pitfall of being oversalted. Nor was the bowl overcrowded with too many ingredients.
But I fell in love with it because of the unexpected addition of perfectly prepared bok choy. During an interview last year, chef Ho Chee Boon, who opened Empress by Boon in San Francisco’s Chinatown, explained the way he keeps bok choy crisp and bright green. The cooks in the Korean Superette are employing the same set of skills. They’re paying attention to the details, such as the way the vegetables are cut for the rice bowl. These include, but weren’t limited to, super fine slivers of zucchini, carrots, mushrooms and green onions.
Additionally, chicken in a rice bowl can often be an afterthought, or worse, rubbery. But the chicken in my rice bowl was as carefully prepared as the vegetables. I shared the dish with a friend, but she was thoroughly engrossed in her spicy silken tofu stew, served with seafood ($16.99). This stew arrives in a molten red broth, but the menu notes that it can be made “mild or non-spicy.”
At least two refrigerators contain a variety of Korean and domestic soft drinks. For $3.99, one can order matcha iced lattes, Korean iced lattes, burdock tea or rice tea. When I stopped by, there weren’t desserts or liquor on the menu—the license may still be pending.
Korean Superette, open every day. Kitchen: 11am-8pm, market until 9pm, 1539 Solano Ave., Berkeley. 510.529.4009. instagram.com/korean_superette