As an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article pointed out a couple of weeks ago, kimchee has become insanely popular. Not only do chefs fancy the assertive flavor of this fermented cabbage, but diners no longer balk as they once did at its chile and garlic, its undercurrent of fish sauce, and its fizzy suggestion of spoilage.
Korean food has taken its first steps into mainstream acceptance, and that means Atlantans of every stripe have begun looking with newfound interest at the hundreds of Korean restaurants throughout our metro area.
This creates a real dilemma for me when readers ask where to go. I want to send everyone to Duluth to revel in the sudden profusion of grand, beautifully decorated Korean restaurants that have turned this Gwinnett suburb into a dining mecca. But people don’t want to go to Duluth unless they live nearby.
“Ten minutes from 285!” I protest to no avail.
“What about Buford Highway?” they retort.
Fine, easy. Woo Nam Jeong Stone Bowl House is one of Atlanta’s best Korean places. But this restaurant specializes in stone bowl rice dishes, soups, stews and an elaborate multi-course menu. Everything but tabletop barbecue, the one item people always ask about. Tabletop barbecue — the kind you cook yourself over hot coals — is the gateway meal to a love affair with Korean food.
So this would be a good time to establish that Han Il Kwan currently serves the best Korean barbecue on Buford Highway. I was originally a fan of Hae Woon Dae, despite its seedy location behind a strip club and porno movie theater, but it has grown long in the tooth. Chosun Ok — a plain-Jane spot with a chilly back barbecue room warmed only by the fire at the tables — got my business for years. But the prices crept up until it no longer felt like the funky bargain alternative.
Nothing remotely resembling funkiness defines the pleasantly shopworn Han Il Kwan — a place of silk flowers, wood laminate surfaces and Korean beer posters tacked to the walls. It’s clean enough, a little too neon bright and manned by a staff of been-around-the-block waitresses who are used to the large crossover clientele and have some hustle in their game. They’ll take you past the front dining room and the various semi-private enclaves where large parties cavort, and get you seated around a barbecue table in the back.
Order saeng gal bi ($22.99), short rib cut from its bone. This is what you really want, even though you’ll try some other cuts of meat. (The restaurant suggests one order of meat per person, but diners with normal appetites can easily halve that.) In no time a tub of glowing hardwood charcoal will get deposited in the table’s fire pit and topped with first a grill and then that crimson fat-streaked meat.
It’s a tale of char and dripping fat that unfolds as the waitress tosses it about unmercifully with tongs before taking a scissors to it, passing out bites and leaving the rest for you to cook. There are, of course, lettuce leaves to wrap this beef, along with the salty, coarse bean sauce called ssamjang. There are pieces of raw garlic and round moons of jalapeño because that fatty, chewy meat needs taming.
Or does it? The flavor has a kind of pure, fire-kissed beefiness you can’t get anywhere else. Next to it, the hyu mit gui (ox tongue, $19.99) tastes fine if wimpy, lean slivers that come off the grill looking a bit like Steak-umms. Fat tiles of sam gyup sal (pork belly, identified on the menu as “pork brisket,” $18.99) get nicely crusty on the grill. But really, all anyone wants is more of that great beef.
The good news about Han Il Kwan is that it does a couple of other crowd-pleasers really well. They serve my favorite hae mul pa jun ($15.99) on Buford Highway. This manhole-cover-sized pancake served in its cast-iron pan has an ultra-crisp surface and an airy, moist interior studded with shrimp, squid and scallions.
The yook hwe ($17.99) ain’t too shabby, either. Most first-timers balk at eating raw beef in a new format, but they quickly perk up to this mound of semi-frozen slivers flavored with roasted sesame, garlic and chile and sided by matchsticks of crunchy Asian pear.
There isn’t a person on Earth who wouldn’t like this restaurant’s version of jap chae ($13.99) — the springy, clear potato noodles stir fried with slivered vegetables, beef and enough sesame oil to make them kind of slide down. The texture is pillowy; not soft like down, but springy like foam.
I haven’t had any luck moving past these favorites. Hae mul jun gol ($34.99 for two) brings a huge pot of cod, shrimp, mussels and octopus to cook at the table with greens, onions and burbling orange broth. After 10 mad minutes of activity, it gets doled out. Thin and flavorless broth meets rubbery octopus. I’ve had much better versions of this dish.
Ditto a pot of gal bi tang ($11.99), a mild soup made with short rib, egg and onion. Neither the chewy meat nor the barely developed broth made you want more. This is a restaurant that does best with fast and furious cooking and, perhaps, the well-rehearsed dishes people usually order.
But now that you’re hooked on barbecue, you should move on to the soups, stews and sundry other dishes that Atlanta’s Korean restaurants offer. For that, you can venture across the street to Woo Nam Jeong.
Or Duluth. Wonderful, wonderful Duluth. I promise: It’s not far.HAN IL KWAN 5458 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-457-3217
Food: A full Korean menu, where tableside barbecue reignsService: Fast and friendly but occasionally a bit brusque Best dishes: Tableside barbecue, hae mul pa jun (seafood pancake), yook hwe (raw beef appetizer) Vegetarian selections: Some, but be advised meat or fish is often a flavoring on vegetarian-sounding dishes. Credit cards: All major Hours: 10 a.m.-1 a.m. daily Children: Perfect Parking: Self-parking in lot Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate Patio: No Takeout: Yes