Korea is now often in the media, and many Americans have consequently become interested in its food and culture. While a wide array of ethnic cuisines are available in Sarasota, Florida (a mecca for the arts, outdoor activities, and nature situated on the Gulf Coast) Korean Ssam Bar has attracted a loyal following since opening on March 22, 2017.
Yun and Yup Namgoong are the owners of this popular restaurant. Yun immigrated to Sarasota at age 17, moving from Incheon, South Korea, with her family. Her father, a master of Tae Kwon Do, had opened a martial arts academy in Sarasota a year before she arrived.
Yun attended Bayshore High School in Bradenton and worked part-time for the well-known beach-side restaurant, Sandbar, owned by Ed Chiles, son of former governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles. The Sandbar’s gorgeous location on Anna Maria Island and its iconic status in the area made this a terrific place for Yun to learn the restaurant business. She worked several years as a hostess at the Sandbar, chosen, no doubt, for this “front of the house” responsibility due to her outgoing personality and ability to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome.
Yun graduated from the University of South Florida. She was working for the State of Florida as a social worker when the opportunity to get into the restaurant business came her way. By then she had married Yup, who is a graduate of the prestigious Ringling College of Art and Design. They took over a Korean restaurant in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota, and successfully ran it for 11 years.
Yun and Yup learned through restaurant contacts that an Indian restaurant in Sarasota was up for sale. They seized this opportunity and Korean Ssam Bar was born. Yun left her job in social services and moved to the “back of the house” to take over cooking while Yup took over the “front of the house.” With his calm nature, he manages the busy restaurant with warmth and a quiet reserve that makes guests feel comfortable and welcomed.
The new restaurant’s name is a play on words based on Yun’s fond memories of the Sandbar. Ssam means “lettuce wrap,” a Korean specialty, and so Ssam Bar was named!
For the cooking, Yun drew on her childhood memories of food preparation in Korea. She is influenced by the home cooking of her grandparents, parents, and extended family. The recipes Yun has developed are traditionally Korean. She procures traditional Korean ingredients and makes all of her own sauces and condiments. Marinated meats are based on techniques that she learned from her family.
One recipe Yun remembers from her childhood is kimchi, a staple in Korean cuisine—a traditional side dish of salted and fermented vegetables, known for its digestive and nutritional qualities. It is classified as a probiotic. With growing public interest in healthy eating, SSam Bar is recognized as a destination for local “foodies.”
At Ssam Bar, Yun prepares 15 heads of napa cabbage a week. Compare this to the 100 heads of cabbage that her family prepared each November in Korea. There, the tradition of burying the cabbage in the ground in earthenware containers was carefully followed. Kimchi-making was a family event and fostered social occasions at the start and the end of production. Often, a feast of pork and fresh kimchi was made to celebrate the beginning of the process. Since this was a winter staple, the kimchi had ice on it when taken from the ground in small quantities until it ran out in February or March.
While Yun recalls the first year of Ssam Bar as hectic and somewhat stressful, her golden rule of saying “Please” and “Thank you” to everyone working in the kitchen and her good helpers who “calm her down” are the secrets to her success. Now Yun enjoys the harmony of a well-run kitchen and is delighted to prepare home cooking for her many customers with the support of a great staff: Yup and their two children, daughter Bari and son Yho, who also help out.
Our group of four diners sampled many dishes and enjoyed them all immensely. The small, intimate dining room was filled with locals: students from nearby colleges, professionals, retirees, families with young children, and food aficionados.
Recently, a mother/daughter pair returned from a trip to South Korea. The daughter is a big fan of K-Pop music and they were happy to compliment Yun, saying that they missed her style of cooking while in Korea. They returned to Ssam Bar the day after they arrived home from their trip to share their travel and culinary adventure stories.
Red Wine by the glass/Cabernet Sauvignon
Barley Tea/Yun says its mild flavor is a favorite of the Queen of England!
Kimchee Pancake Appetizer
Pork Dumplings Appetizer
Spring Rolls Appetizer
Stone Hot Pot/Bibimbap: Rice topped with choice of protein, or spicy squid, and a fried egg, in a sizzling stone bowl, usually mixed with Gochujang, the traditional Korean pepper paste
Black Bean Sauce with Udon Noodles/Jajangmyeon
Thin sliced Marinated Beef/Beef Bulgogi: The favorite dish sampled that night
Lettuce Wrap/Ssam with condiments: kimchi (fresh and aged), chayote and cucumber, potato. This item, while not officially on the menu, is available by special request
Two weeks later, we returned to Ssam Bar to taste a dish that is available, by order, at least a week in advance: Samgyetang/Ginseng Chicken Soup. It is a favorite dish in Korea, served during the very hot summer months…. perfect for a hot summer day in Sarasota! The recipe revolves around cooking a small chicken stuffed with ginseng, other herbs, sticky rice, and red dates. The recipe is said to have medicinal qualities. We were eager to sample it, as one person in our party had recently been hospitalized with digestive issues and might benefit from tasting this new dish. It is served piping hot. As the Korean saying goes, “Eating the hot soup is fighting heat with heat.”
We enjoyed the presentation when the condiments were lined up in front of us and the pot of Samgyetang presented at the table. We helped ourselves to the broth and pieces of the chicken, which fell off the bones. It is a simple, pleasing dish, with no salt or heavy spices. Adding the condiments and rice, served as sides, added spice, saltiness and extra flavor. We highly recommend this dish.
On our second visit, there were two long tables with 8 to 10 people in a party. Some of the other guests were local Koreans, a few regular customers, several business people out for an early dinner, and a curious vacationer.
Everything we sampled was made with care, presented well, and delicious.
When asked what the family does for vacations or breaks, Yun explained that her children’s best memories are visits to Korea. They enjoy going camping in the Korean mountains with Yup’s family. Part of the experience is to bring a stove to cook outside, and they sleep in tents.
Give Korean Ssam Bar a try. You will want to go back often once you taste Yun’s home-style Korean cooking.
Korean Ssam Bar
1303 N Washington Blvd, Unit E
Sarasota, FL 34236
About the Author:
Sara Sinaiko is a writer living in Sarasota, Florida. Beginning in September, 2019, she is honored to serve as the Fair Food Program Development Director (ciw-online.org; fairfoodstandards.org).