Image: Michael Novak

Han Ly Hwang, the chef-owner at food cart favorite Kim Jong Grillin’, has a complicated relationship with his heritage. Raised in Virginia, Hwang was constantly bullied for—among other things—having a house that smelled strongly of kimchi. He was 5 when he first went to Korea to visit relatives in “the straight-up sticks.” It didn’t help his identity crisis: “Everything was spicy, there was a single toilet in the entire village, and I watched a pig get slaughtered. I cried for days.”

Hwang, now 39, has found peace with that cultural dissonance through cooking. It started at a Portland Christmas party, when he served bulgogi—the same type he used to devour after church in his Korean community in Virginia—to ravenous eaters who gnawed the marinated strips of beef, still mostly raw, from the grill. Later, motivation came while working the line at restaurants like Portland’s long-shuttered Carlyle, in the form of enthusiastically received dinner specials. “When I opened [Kim Jong Grillin’],” says Hwang, “there was almost no one doing Korean. Then, all of the sudden, Korean chefs were making these huge moves ... everybody had the Momofuku cookbook. When one Korean chef comes up, we all kind of come up.”

It hasn’t been easy. His first cart, fueled by sweat and blood and little else, burned to the ground just hours after winning a local food cart competition in 2011: “To have the rug pulled out from under me—to lose all that steam—was totally devastating.” The next four years were a litany of setbacks (as he describes it, “the lowest part of my life”), including the bad unraveling of a half-built brick-and-mortar. At his most desperate, Hwang nabbed a spot on the Food Network’s Chopped, during which celebrity chef and noted jerk Scott Conant gave him some advice: “Get your ass back in the kitchen; don’t give up.” Hwang took those words to heart, reopening his cart in 2014 on SE Division with stupidly addictive bulgogi, galbi, and bibim “boxes.” A second cart followed on Hawthorne in 2017, along with a steadily growing rep as a straight-shooting food personality.

This grilled short rib recipe is as Korean American as Hwang: galbi, a traditional barbecue cut, amped with a secret heartland ingredient, Sunkist strawberry soda. (Yes, it must be Sunkist: “Crush is too syrupy,” Hwang says, “and Fanta is just red soda—total garbage.”) Crispy like bacon and slightly pink like rare skirt steak, this salty-sweet finger food is summer barbecue genius.

And Hwang? “When I used to join a new restaurant, I’d have to make some sort of racist joke about cooking dog, just to get it out of the way. I don’t do that anymore. I’m unapologetically Korean.”

Kim Jong Grillin’s Galbi Short Ribs 

Serves 6 

  • 5 lbs ½-inch-thick flanken or Korean-style beef short ribs
  • ½ cup (roughly a head) minced garlic 
  • ½ cup ¼-inch-diced scallions
  • 4 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
  • 1 cup white sugar 
  • 3 cups Kikkoman soy sauce 
  • ¼ cup Kadoya-brand toasted sesame oil
  • ½ cup Sunkist strawberry soda 
  • Assorted banchan

Find ribs, banchan, and all other Korean ingredients at Boo Han market (1313 SE 82nd Ave) or H-Mart (13600 SW Pacific Hwy).

MARINATE Put garlic, scallions, mushrooms, sugar, and soy sauce in a large, nonreactive bowl. Mix using your hands until sugar is dissolved, squeezing ingredients until mixture becomes viscous, around 2 minutes. Add soda and oil. Put short ribs in two gallon-size zip-top bags, pour half the marinade in each bag, and let sit for 15 minutes.

GRILL Remove ribs from bag and grill over high heat, 2–3 minutes per side, or until edges are crispy and center is still slightly pink.

SERVE Cut ribs crosswise between the bones into little galbi bites and serve with rice, more fresh-chopped scallions, sliced garlic, shiso, spicy gochujang chile paste, and an assortment of sour, nutty banchan (side dishes), from kimchi to sesame-garlic spinach. To turn the dish into a ssam (lettuce wrap) party, cut ribs off the bone and wrap toppings and sides in butter or red leaf lettuce.

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Han Ly Hwang may be best known as the dude whose Korean food cart burned to smithereens just two hours after claiming the Judges Award at the 2011’s Eat Mobi...