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I moved to West Oakland in February 2012 a little over a year ago. I still consider myself a newbie here, especially when it comes to the food scene. So like most newcomers, I’ll turn to Yelp to get an idea of what’s on the culinary landscape here, but as we all know, you can’t always trust what you read; someone is always complaining about something. And I can’t help but feel that Yelpers favor the spots that serve American comfort foods, not the spicy, flavorful ethnic foods I crave. I was in desperate need of a spice fix.

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One day while on Magnolia Street, just off West Grand Avenue and a few blocks from my apartment, I spied a sandwich board out on the sidewalk that read “I Bleed Kimchi.” Aside from the sandwich board, there was no sign outside explaining what you’d find inside. I was intrigued. It seemed out of place in the industrial-warehouse bubble of West Oakland, between a wood-art lot, live/work spaces, and a few houses. I stopped at the building to find out more. Moments later, my mind was blown.

"There was no sign outside explaining what you'd find inside ...moments later, my mind was blown."

What I found was FuseBOX, a Korean-fusion lunch spot tucked away behind a high fence in a building that used to be a furniture warehouse. Artifacts of its past, including a giant blue “A” on the building, are mixed with minimalist wooden doors and random Asian-inspired sculptures. Its sprawling front patio is perfect for Oakland 70-degree days, like the afternoon when I stumbled upon this gem. It was prime lunch hour, and FuseBOX’s communal outdoor picnic tables were filled with patrons. I walked inside, where I found a more intimate atmosphere with soft wood paneling that’s a little reminiscent of a traditional Japanese ryokan.

After that first visit, I came back to FuseBOX (it is just around the corner from my place) and got to know its owners, Chef Sunhui Chang and his wife, Ellen, who manages the front end of the restaurant.

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Chef Chang is originally from Incheon, Korea. He came from a family of foodies – both of his parents were exceptional chefs. He lived in Incheon until his family relocated to Guam, where he worked at his mother’s restaurant. But Sunhui was itching for bigger and better places, and that’s how he landed in Berkeley in his teen years. In the East Bay, he continued to work in the food industry, first in a bagel shop, then a deli, then as a butcher and a fishmonger. He became head chef of the former Hwang Won Korean restaurant in downtown Oakland at age 23, moved into catering, and, finally, opened FuseBOX on May 3, 2012.

 

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Ellen has long been a staple in the East Bay theater scene, working as a theater director. Almost two decades ago, she and Sunhui lived around the corner from each other in Berkeley. The couple met and fell in love. About four years ago, they moved to West Oakland. Ellen has always incorporated food into her theater work, and she is a dynamite cook herself, according to Sunhui. “Food has always been a big part of our relationship. We both have a passion for food,” he said.

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When I asked what he considers FuseBOX’s specialty, Chef Chang adamantly professes that all the dishes are special; each diner will give you a different take on the menu. But he did mention that the popularity of certain items often depends on the weather. Sandwiches tend to sell better on hot days, while the bap sets (special entrees served with a side of rice and banchan) do well on cooler days.

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Don’t be fooled – the name FuseBOX did not derive from “fusion.” In

fact, Sunhui isn’t the biggest fan of the word. “I called it FuseBOX as we wanted it to be a conduit of energy and electricity for the neighborhood,” he said. FuseBOX is, in some sense, a Korean fusion restaurant, but it’s more traditional than even “traditional Korean restaurants,” as Chef Chang serves only house-made gochujang (red bean pepper paste), tofu, and banchan.

 

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And every dish comes with a side of kimchi. You know, the kind that bleeds? Chef Chang prepares the fermented spicy vegetables by hand every week from local and sustainable ingredients. He’s taken a few tips from his mom’s recipes, but he depends highly on his palate for his inventive kimchi creations. His most original to date is a hot Korean mustard brine. As Ellen explained, “A lot of people go to culinary school, but one thing that can’t be learned is palate. Sunhui is a chef with a palate.”

"Every dish comes with a side of kimchi. You know, the kind that bleeds?"

Do It Yourself

Whether you’re an Oakland local or a San Franciscan looking to venture out to the East Bay, FuseBOX is a must-go, especially since it’s so easily accessible from the Bay Bridge. It fits any budget and will be sure to please the taste buds of even the most seasoned foodies. In fact, the day that I ate there, the patron next to me was none other than Alice Waters.