Cowabunga 2019

Cowabunga Q&A: Kim Jong Grillin’s Han Ly Hwang

The Korean cart competitor talks kimchi, '90s salads, and the pitfalls of trying to re-create fast food.

By Karen Brooks June 25, 2019

Kim Jong Grillin's Han Ly Hwang 

Image: Emily Hill

You may know Han Ly Hwang as the dude behind Kim Jong Grillin’, the iconic Portland food truck at 4606 SE Division St. The cart’s Korean menu is small, but the flavors are big—bibimbap boxes to wonder dogs doused in spice, funk, and smoke. 

But Hwang has another identity: fierce competitor. Kim Jong Grillin’ won the Judges Award at 2011’s Eat Mobile festival. In 2016, Hwang slayed local and national competition to win Feast Portland’s Sandwich Invitational with one very awesome Bulgogi Club Sandwich. Last year, he won a head-to-head round at Feast’s 80s vs. 90s smackdown, dispatching pastrami-expert Sammich, and, proving once again, only the brave should step into the ring with Han Ly Hwang.

Now, on July 13, Hwang is ready to John Wick a new round of competitors at Portland Monthly’s Cowabunga, a three-day food and drink festival at the beautiful Rossi Farms July 12-14. For the second year running, this bucolic patch in outer Northeast’s Parkrose hood will be home to an intimate three-day festival of chefs, butchers, farmers, food artisans, bartenders, brewers and eaters—all bent on celebrating (and devouring) the Northwest’s best food and drink. 

Earlier in the day, Hwang will be sharing cooking secrets at the Farm-to-Fork cooking demos. Tickets to Cowabunga 2019 are available now. Score your spot at individual events or buy a pass to the whole darn weekend

We caught up with Hwang to see what’s cooking.

What’s your favorite dish to show off?

I always get a lot of interest in kimchi. But people don’t know how to ask questions. A lot of people don’t want to ask a Korean guy how to make kimchi. But I love to talk about the fermentation process. I love to show the simplicity of salt and food and fermenting.

What is the mark of a great kimchi? How do you judge?   

The marker is your memory. If you’ve had it, you’ll remember it: the moment you fell in love, the way that combination of sour, spice, sesame, and sweet grabbed your palate the first time you had Korean food. I get compliments at the truck. People say, “It’s just like my grandmas; my neighborhood.” I love that. I also love when people say, “I’ve never had that before.” People have a conception that it’s just spicy and sour ... but it’s so much more.

Last year, you beat Sammich in a hard-fought food round. You beat a Chicago beef sandwich with … a salad? How did that happen?

I was going to make a super 1990s architectural salad with salmon puffs, parmesan cheese triangles and birds nest croutons made out of kataifi. But I couldn’t find enough phyllo dough for the croutons—I needed enough for 900 samples. So I went a different route: a salad that looked simple but tasted like grilled salmon and Caesar salad; as 1990s as I could get. Sometimes limitations can be an advantage.

What’s the biggest mistake cooks make in food competitions?

A lot of people attempt to remake a classic. Like fast food. Like “I just made a McFish sandwich.” I’m like “Dude, don’t think you have the chemical knowledge to remake that.” I cut my chicken tenders at home like chicken nuggets. My kids say, “Dad these ain’t Nuggets.” A distinct chemical reaction happens with fast food. People try to capture that. It’s not going to work in a competition.

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