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Han Il Kwan restaurant review, Doraville

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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.

John Kessler is the chief dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

John Kessler is the chief dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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.

Buford Highway's best Korean barbecue: now we're talkin' (all photos by Becky Stein)

Buford Highway's best Korean barbecue: now we're talkin' (all photos by Becky Stein)

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.

Yook hwe: Korean beef tartare

Yook hwe: Korean beef tartare

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.

Hae mul pa jun, a crispy seafood pancake

Hae mul pa jun, a crispy seafood pancake

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
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Food: A full Korean menu, where tableside barbecue reigns

Service: 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

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17 comments Add your comment

[...] Han Il Kwan restaurant review, Doraville [...]

Sempai

June 14th, 2012
8:49 am

So Kessler–
Please name these wonderful Duluth Korean restaurants. I’m OTP.

HRpufnstuf

June 14th, 2012
8:50 am

I spent a year in Korea in the Army, so I have to get my Korean fix, and thankfully there are some good restaurants here in Atlanta. My favorite dish is Yukaejong (spicy beef & veg. soup). Han Il Kwan does a good job and so does Hae Woon Dae.

Dr. C

June 14th, 2012
9:24 am

I enjoy the barbecue and have eaten at all of the places mentioned in the article, but it seems as if the prices for the meat are sky high. Can someone explain why $19 for pork belly (for example)? You don’t find prices this high in Seoul so why here?

Steve

June 14th, 2012
9:46 am

@Sempai: Honey Pig in Duluth tops my list for Korean bbq

PJ

June 14th, 2012
1:34 pm

@sempai – I second Honey Pig & I don’t live anywhere near it. Totally worth the drive!

John Kessler

June 14th, 2012
2:05 pm

Yes, Honey Pig is a great destination for pork belly. Some of my other Duluth faves are Myung GA Won for barbecue and sullongtang (beef bone soup), Chung Dam for jiggae (stews) and a nice atmosphere, Well Bean and Book Chang Dong for soon dubu (tofu stew), Bonjuk for juk (rice porridge) and Dan Moo Ji for gim bap (Korean sushi rolls). I hear Chicken & Beer has really good Korean fried chicken.

Rodney

June 14th, 2012
2:20 pm

Han II Kwan is a consistent, good choice – I go all the time. It’s not too daunting when taking new friends and you can still find some authentic-ish dishes for the more adventurous.

Kinda funny, but I first went to Honey Pig based on the name alone. :) It seemed to call to me – little did I know I would actually enjoy it enough to drive out there a number of times now!

Robert

June 14th, 2012
5:45 pm

Is Burford Highway kin to Buford Highway?

Robert

June 14th, 2012
5:47 pm

The blurb on the front of ajc’s page says “Burford Highway”. The AJC really needs a proofreader.

John Kessler

June 14th, 2012
6:23 pm

It’s been fixed…thanks, Robert.

GadgetGeek

June 14th, 2012
7:14 pm

I agree John, and charcoal makes it ever so good. One of my fave’s too. I like the octopus there especially.

Mr. Anderson

June 14th, 2012
7:25 pm

My high school history teacher was held prisoner of war in Korea. All they were fed was kimchee, so of course, he hates it.

jan brady

June 15th, 2012
12:37 am

Yes. Dan Moo Ji has excellent tuna kimbap. I crave it. The spicy chicken kimbap is good too. Servings are huge and prices are cheap.

Rupricht

June 15th, 2012
1:23 pm

On the other side of town, but has anyone tried Il Mee on Highway 41? I had the Yum So Tang (Goat Soup, but I believe that it was really lamb), which was very good. Trying to convince my wife to go with me, but she’s a bit wary.

Alicia

June 19th, 2012
3:43 pm

I don’t want to list this place because it’s my favorite and don’t want it overrun with a long wait, but Jang Su Jang is consistently forgotten. Their food has been consistent for the past 10 or so years I’ve been going there, and the service is excellent. My favorite dishes are the Yook Hwe Jang Kal Kook Soo and the soon tofu is good there, as well. Prices are the most competitive that I’ve seen in Atlanta, and the banchan is always on point.

Richard Bunn

June 20th, 2012
11:26 am

I went last night to Han Il Kwan with a few friends on this recommendation for Korean Barbeque and I cannot disagree more. I thought the food was at best mediocre, the wait staff disinterested and unhelpful and the prices were outrageously high. The photographs provided in this article as well as the ones on the menu are not representative of what you get. We were not allowed to cook the meats which were piled on the grill, cut with scissors. The vegetables which were cooked after the meats were also simply piled on the grill without any semblance of order and finally left for us to eat practically raw. The condiments were dull and were unexplained even after we asked about them. I’ll not return and would suggest to others to not go.