Life of Cho
New restaurants often feel like rough drafts in search of a thesis. But even that definition would be too structured for Han Oak. Portland’s best Korean food adventure is an Etch A Sketch, its dials twirling four nights a week in a secret courtyard off of NE Sandy Boulevard.
This observation came into blurry focus on a recent Monday, a night when the ever-changing space, long host to casual weekend prix fixe meals, morphs into its latest identity: a Korean noodle and dumpling house (“Noods and Dumps,” in house parlance). The mode is house party: customers drift about, foraging for cocktails at the makeshift bar. The greeter, co-owner Sun Young Park, was so resplendently pregnant this spring, you feared her water would break before you ordered. Fend for your own table. She’s busy chasing toddler Elliott, the house mascot double-fisting rice crackers. Holding the title of “volunteer food runner” is loyal customer Gary Okazaki, a.k.a. “Gary the Foodie,” a power tweeter and global Michelin-star-restaurant hopper. He barrels through the aisles like a Soviet tank moving into Czechoslovakia, his signature fanny pack flopping.
In the eye of the storm stands chef and co-owner Peter Cho, 39, the face of unhurried cool in rolled-up jeans and apron, his raven hair hanging like a doo-wop flip. He’s lost in the vapors of a pig’s head broth and conversation with his posse—fellow kitchen talents, counter-seat customers, off-duty chefs, and, often, his mom, pinching dumpling dough. A plate breaks; there’s no infrastructure to handle the growing crowds. No worries. Cho never has a plan. One week, Han Oak’s doing Korean barbecue; a few months ago, it was farm-fresh K-brunch. It all works out, even when it doesn’t.
Han Oak is as seat-of-pants as a restaurant gets, sketched only with skill and imagination, defiantly open to chaos. Cho’s dumplings are crinkled bundles of bombastic pleasure that speak directly to the reptilian brain. Hand-torn noodles in broth taste like the best part of wontons, all flap and chew. Farther down the menu, Korean fried chicken wings, titanic in crunch, could do hand-to-hand combat with medical marijuana. It’s the most fun and satisfying menu in town right now.
Surprisingly, Han Oak marks Cho’s first crack at cooking Korean professionally. Born in Seoul, he grew up on old-school family recipes in granola Eugene. But he caught the restaurant bug as a 20-something living in New York, glued to TV’s Iron Chef and Molto Mario when not checking groceries at Whole Foods. In 2005, happenstance and blind courage led him to audition for a kitchen job at the Spotted Pig, the pioneering American gastropub. He didn’t even own a knife. Quickly, he worked his way up from “fry bitch” to sous-chef, cooking for regulars like Jay Z and Bono.
Four years later, Spotted Pig star chef-owner April Bloomfield tagged him as opening chef at the Breslin in Midtown’s Ace Hotel—another celeb magnet. After landing in Portland in 2013, Cho did a complete 180, spinning as far from Big Apple ladder climbing as you can get, first gaining cult attention for Stray Dogs, a pop-up collaboration with fellow NYC expat Johnny Leach, then rediscovering his roots with a fresh voice last year at Han Oak. The space is so lo-fi, it literally doubles as his family’s house.
At most places, Korean meals are like James Brown’s Night Train, all funk and sweat. Han Oak is more Korea Unplugged: Mom’s humble cooking with edge, beauty, refined tweaks, and emotional generosity.
For all this, Cho’s three-course, reservation-only $45 prix fixe dinners—available since day one—are too muted. Nothing bad, mind you; but nothing to haunt your dreams. I love how he brings seasonal resonance to banchan, but, alas, the egg-sauced asparagus and miso-glazed purple sprouted broccoli need some kick and pow, a little funky drummer. Lettuce-wrapped pork belly lacks juice, literally. The midmeal Korean chicken soup is a nice dish, the one you bring home to Mom. But the noodle soup you’re crushing on shows up Sunday and Monday—its bone marrow stock, anchovy juju, and fish powders coy and mysterious.
That drop-in “Noods and Dumps” menu is the show at Han Oak right now—and shows exactly what this chef is capable of. Nine dishes form the list, not a loser in the bunch. Bite into those dumplings and flavors roll across the tongue like boulders, spicy shrimp to chive-talking pork. It’s a singular meeting of multigenerational family history and the Spotted Pig’s famed whole animal cookery. This is where Cho’s heart seems to be, cracking jokes and making budae jjigae floating with Spam and American cheese and the eye-pop of hot dogs splayed like baby octopuses. Even son Elliott seems to agree. One Monday night, the little boy zoomed around the room blowing out tabletop candles, then froze, chugged his bottle like a 40 of Hite, and fell on the floor in a happy sleep.
Emblazoned on his T-shirt: “Best Day Ever.”
Top Image: Chef Peter Cho and a rotating cast of kitchen characters steam handmade dumplings at his Northeast Portland restaurant (and home) Han Oak.