Best Restaurants 2017: Hang with Cho

Han Oak Is Portland Monthly’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year

With epic dumplings and endless format changes, Peter Cho remakes Korean cooking and captures a city’s spirit.

By Karen Brooks October 12, 2017 Published in the November 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Han Oak's mentaiko spaghetti, with cured pollack roe, shiro dashi, butter, parmesan, and nori

Every once in a while, a place rewrites the rules, charms hearts, and dominates the conversation. In 2017, honors go to Han Oak, behind a hidden door off of NE Sandy Boulevard. The website calls it a “non-traditional Korean restaurant.” Consider those words a mere starting point for an experience: landmark dumplings, spicy wings, and joyful chaos. Personal? The space doubles as the home of Peter Cho, Han Oak’s magnetic center of gravity, where he holds court with Korean moms, seemingly every off-duty cook in town, and anyone else who wanders in for an evening of chill magic. Roll with it. Han Oak has the goods in these three ways:

1. A great space.

Is this a house party? A serious food situation? A Korean family restaurant, where parents mill about and a free-range kid commandeers a Captain America car? All perceptions are true; no two nights the same. The last time I ventured inside Cho’s hideaway, the yard looked like a Korean barbecue laboratory designed by Wildlings: at least six grates, two Traeger smokers, a tripod contraption hoisting a swinging pot, and a giant tree stump carved into a star-shaped fire pit, an idea that trended in the 1600s during the Thirty Years’ War. The ultimate purpose of this fire gear is unknown, but it currently lights up the kitchen’s slow-roasted pork belly ssams, spontaneous “guest chef in the pit” dishes, and, soon, winter stews. On a previous visit, Han Oak had morphed into a giant berry patch, with nerd-ball tastings from the great Rubinette Produce next door, marionberry-lashed Korean short ribs, and $3 desserts served by visiting pastry chefs dressed like Mormon goths.

The next time, Han Oak will be something else—in fact, at summer's end Cho announced plans to consolidate his menus and do four straight-up á la carte nights a week. Count only on this: warm vibes, good tunes, and humble but high-level food. Cho and Sun Young Park, his wife, forge their own definition of a Korean restaurant: responding to the moment, with fresh ideas about cooking and collaborations inspiring new ways of dining. Wandering formats and changes in direction are the design; Cho says he never wants Han Oak to settle into place. Yet there’s nary a whiff of attitude. Mostly, we feel part of something: a family, a philosophy, an inspired food culture, Portland. Han Oak may be the most inclusive exclusive restaurant ever.

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From left: Korean fried chicken wings; the scene at Han Oak, with Le Pigeon vet Andrew Mace in the foreground; noodles and dumplings

2. Korean, reimagined

Cho feels this cuisine like Al Green feels the river. He was weaned on his mom’s old-school ways, making dumplings around the kitchen table in Springfield, Oregon. But he trained under New York star chef April Bloomfield, queen of the gastropub. In her kitchens, even a cheeseburger deserves respect and rigor. Or else. Cho quickly rose to right-hand man, serving the likes of Jay-Z and Bono. During off-hours, he charmed friends with tours through New York’s K-town restaurants, themselves a revelation for a kid from small-town Oregon. All these threads merge at Han Oak, where, at 39, Cho is cooking Korean professionally for the first time. He takes his kitchen crew on crawls through Beaverton’s Korean joints in search of “cool, fun, or cheesy” inspirations to reimagine with stealth kitchen moves, ingredient upgrades, and refined twists. Cho puts it this way: “A lot of Korean food is not cooked properly. Technique is often wrong. For most Koreans in my parents’ generation, meat is well done and marinades bury cheap cuts. I trained at the School of April!” 

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Peter Cho chills.

3. The perfect Portland menu

Han Oak isn’t looking to blow our gastronomic minds. Cho just wants to delight novices and natives alike with snacks, noodles, dumplings, and surprises (check the website for details). Along the way, he’s composed menus that speak straight to the local heart:

  • A major fried chicken contender. Cho’s Korean fried chicken thunders and tingles and rockets around your mouth with astronomical crunch and an entire cabinet of mysterious heat and fish powders. I’d knock you down for the last wing. Just sayin’.
  • Epic dumplings. The perfect Asian dumpling looks like this: part Korean pork mandu; part Bloomfield-level charcuterie techniques; part Chinese soup dumpling, sort of, but with the delicious broth spooned below, not hiding. It’s a porky blockbuster—and merely one standout in Cho’s dumpling repertoire.
  • A vegetable that tastes like meat. The best veg I had all year? Han Oak’s outrageous, double-fried, tamarind-glazed cauliflower. It tastes like chicken, but better.
  • Good drinks. Yep, the Hite flows here. But don’t slip away without a cocktail. Michelle Ruocco captures the spirit of the kitchen: just root around the fridge and rifle the shelves for ideas. Cocktails with daikon brine and Mama Lil’s peppers? You won’t be disappointed.
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