Oakland’s newest Korean deli promises farm-fresh banchan for budget-minded diners

Steve Joo’s new restaurant promises affordable Korean dishes made with quality ingredients.

Joodooboo’s banchan are made with local and seasonal ingredients. Credit: Allan Wan

Creating delicious, nourishing food made with farm-fresh produce and bringing community together over meals: These are the values driving Joodooboo, Steve Joo’s new deli/cafe venture in Oakland. 

Joodooboo, slated to open in October, will feature daily house-made organic tofu and banchan, the side dishes that come with traditional Korean meals. The deli will feature banchan dishes such as marinated sungold tomatoes, roasted okra, roasted beets, anchovies with braised beet greens and doenjang, Korean soy bean paste and marinated roasted eggplant with seasoned cucumbers. 

Joo’s a name that’s familiar to local restaurant patrons. He was the co-founder of Oakland California-Korean pop-up Nokni, which was a wildly-popular hit. Efforts to make that business a permanent one were snarled by the pandemic, and Joodooboo is his pivot, a tiny, casual spot focused on affordable meals done well.

For example, there’s a banchan subscription plan, where member customers can pay about $10 a week to access a weekly banchan special and get a discount on other items in the store. (Joo anticipates that members can also serve sustainability goals via reusable containers for each meal.) It’s a program he’s launching in light of “the burden of the cost of living of the majority of folks paying upwards or 40 and 50 percent of their income on rent.” 

The deli will always have grab-and-go containers of banchan and fresh tofu for sale, and will offer daily set meals. The meals will likely consist of a bowl of rice, a protein like fish and banchan to go with it. Diners can get those meals to go or to eat in house at one of the deli’s four tables (no outdoor seating is planned for now).

Lovers of Joo’s work at Nokni will also recognize Joodooboo’s emphasis on beautiful farm-fresh ingredients in Korean preparations. The banchan dishes will be made from vegetables sourced from local farms such as Dirty Girl Produce, River Dog Farm, Lucero Organic Farm, Full Belly Farm and the farmers markets in Berkeley, Marin and Oakland. The deli will also have a fermentation room where he will make the restaurant’s variety of kimchi, a year-round Napa cabbage version as well as one or two seasonal offerings. Other preserved foods will include dishes like  jangajji, a non-fermented Korean soy-marinated pickle.

A lot of Joodooboo’s offerings are years in the making. In 2014, Joo spent a year traveling throughout Korea and learning about Korean cooking, haunting basement-level shopping center food markets and banchan stalls. At one, he found a maker of “remarkably good” tofu that he studied with to create Joodooboo’s. The plan, Joo said, is to use a special tofu machine from Korea and organic soy beans sourced from Minnesota to make fresh tofu for Joodooboo every day.

Steve Joo learned to make Joodooboo’s tofu during his travels in Korea. Credit: Allan Wan

There may also be other iterations of tofu in the future, as well. Joo described something he called “tofu California” — a tofu-based ricotta substitute that he plans on producing — as well as the possibility of flavored varieties, such as mugwort or black sesame. 

Enamored with food and cooking early, Joo said he “was always a good eater. I was hanging out with cousins of mine who were good cooks when I was in high school. I was enchanted with the role food played in humanizing people, how magical it was, how the tones of conversations changed when people were enjoying good food together.” 

In college, he studied economics and religion, and even considered entering into the ministry. At the end of college, he realized that he wanted to thread his love of cooking into a community that he could be part of. Joo worked at highly regarded restaurants, including Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and the longstanding (now defunct) Napa Valley restaurant Terra, before launching Nokni with Julya Shin, another Chez Panisse alum. 

Circling back to his early days of cooking, Joo said that the COVID-19 crisis crystallized his belief that a food business has to serve the community around it. During the pandemic, he joined a number of fellow cooks who spent time on farms that were short-staffed, employed by farmers who knew that many cooks needed work during the restaurant shutdown. Joo’s friend, Annabel Lenderink at Star Route Farms, hired cooks to help with planting and to prepare lunch for the staff, Joo said, “basically finding ways to be in community with folks experiencing similar things.” 

This experience helped Joo plan out Joodooboo — the focus on tofu and banchan, and the desire to “nourish and feed people in a direct and personal kind of way,” while paying employees well and using the best ingredients. Ideally. Joo says, people who don’t necessarily have a lot of Korean food exposure will get to enjoy some “fresh and new flavors.” And  “for people with shared points of reference” and more familiarity with Korean dishes, Joodooboo will offer “a fresh take on what people are familiar with,” at a price point accessible to a variety of budgets.

Joodooboo opens in October. 4201 Market St. (near 42nd Street), Oakland

Joodooboo’s pickles and kimchi will be made in a special fermentation room. Credit: Allan Wan