In far-west-suburban Westmont, tucked inconspicuously among the boxy office parks and asphalt vistas, sits the International Plaza Shopping Center, a large, frequently desolate Asian supermarket anchoring a somewhat dingy food court, perpetually underlit in spite of a broad skylight. Unlike the grocery, the food court seems to do a brisk business, with folks continually lined up at the China Cafe for hot soy milk and Chinese doughnuts, and on weekends at the neighboring Yu Ton Dumpling House, where the owners stack piles of glistening red-green amaranth, Chinese broccoli, and cabbages harvested from their own farm.
In the center of this mostly Chinese row of food stalls sits an outlier, Hanbun, a Korean stand run by 26-year-old chef David Park and his fiancee, Jennifer Tran, both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, the country’s preeminent culinary school. What Park is doing in this cramped suburban stand is so different from what any Korean restaurant in the region does that it’s worth a pilgrimage or two (or more) from wherever you are on the map.
Park offers two menus at Hanbun, each informed by his Korean heritage (he was born in Anyang, south of Seoul) and his formal Western culinary training, which included stages at Le Bernardin, Tru, and L2O, and longer stints at the Aviary and Wicker Park’s late Storefront Company, where he rose to sous chef. The lunchtime menu, offered from 11 AM to 3 PM Tuesday through Sunday, features about a dozen familiar, homey Korean dishes plus a special or two, executed with the thoughtfulness and precision that only a chef forged in the crucible of the fine-dining kitchen can pull off.
Take his ja jiang mian, or noodles in black bean sauce, a dish of northern Chinese origins that has come to epitomize Korean comfort food; normally a sloppy-satisfying bowl of pasta drenched in a murky but meaty and vegetable-heavy slurry. Park cures pork belly for 24 hours, then sous vides it just as long, dicing the meat and folding it with reserved fats and liquids into the black bean sauce, ladling it over thick, chewy tenomi noodles from Sun Noodle (supplier to the ramen stars), then garnishing with crisp julienned cucumber quick-pickled in Vietnamese fish sauce. This ample, deeply satisfying bowl sells for $8.95, a remarkable price given the amount of labor involved, and commensurate with the rest of the lunch menu.
Operating mostly alone out of a food-court stall keeps overhead down, and it’s reflected in the prices on the rest of the menu, which offers dishes such as bibimbap, often a gateway meal for non-Koreans. At Hanbun it sports some seven garnishes, including slow-roasted chicken, perfectly jiggly soft-cooked eggs dressed with fine threads of red chile, and puffed barley rice, which is mixed in to mimic the crunchy texture imparted from the traditional stone pot dolsot.
Park sous vides the pork that goes on the steamed buns with coffee to impart an earthy, slightly bitter flavor. For the classic street snack ddeokkbokki, he dresses the cylindrical rice cakes with crunchy puffed amaranth as a contrast to their chewiness. His vegetable pajeon is a thin, charred pancake, crispy all the way through where common varieties are often thick and gummily undercooked. The assortment of banchan served at any given time as a collection of side dishes Park calls the “Korean Table” is also extraordinary: pickled mushrooms showered with lavender chive blossoms, a block of cold tofu painted with the spicy fermented soybean-and-chile paste ssamjang and sprinkled with finely minced chive, or a cup of kimchi chigae, a normally bold but straightforward stew given depths of flavor and complexity with chicken stock, dashi, caramelized garlic, fish sauce, and white soy.
As refined (and yet affordable) as these common dishes are, they don’t approach the level of artistry that Park displays on weekend nights, when he sets a single table behind the counter for six to nine guests and serves a multicourse juhnyuk, or dinner tasting, of beautifully plated dishes. Park draws on an array of influences for this menu, but they do skew more Korean. It isn’t the approachable innovation of, say, Parachute, but rather Korean through a modernist lens. The current menu features delicate blooms and herbs grown in the backyard garden of Park’s future mother-in-law, and also produce gathered on weekly two-plus-hour hauls to JoongBoo Market in Avondale (HMart won’t sell to him in bulk without advance notice). There’s also a plump Plymouth Champagne oyster, garnished with a granita made from the sweet and funky rice brew makeolli, whipped lardo, and a tart shred of kohlrabi kimchi that brings out the delicate sweetness of the oyster rather than obscuring it.
Next comes a deep-fried shrimp croquette, crowned by a daikon radish flower with gochujang aioli meant to evoke the fish-cake snack known as odeng, its gooey interior oozing with emulsified crustacean, yogurt, and garlic confit. A third course unintentionally references and trumps anything I’ve seen in the poke craze: wild sockeye salmon tartare tossed with milk-bread croutons, gobs of tangy yuzu creme fraiche, and hydrated basil seeds that pop like caviar. Ddeokkbokki makes another appearance, this time toasted in chicken schmaltz atop a charred cabbage puree, with chicken-dashi-gochuchang sauce, pickled mustard seeds, and red-onion-pickled quail eggs.
Fat kimchi-pork dumplings bathe in a cool cucumber-butter emulsion, while rib eye roasted in brown butter rests among a lotus root trifecta: pureed, fried, and pickled. As a palate cleanser, Park offers a sesame-leaf-and-soju granita with compressed honey melon, perilla seeds, and the children’s yogurt drink Yogeureuteuh, followed by a marriage of mocha and pound cake with strawberry-infused chocolate ganache and a compote made with strawberries and omija berries. Like most successful tasting menus, this one tells a story with a logical progression of courses that demonstrates the versatility of Korean food, and may even foretell its future. And at $63, it’s a bargain.
I’ve often used this space to extol, defend, and champion the reaches of suburbia for their culinary treasures, intermittently sprawled across the Olive Garden desert like oases, far from the overmarketed restaurant clots of the Fulton Market District and Logan Square. The International Plaza is one such oasis, and within it Hanbun is a treasure worth seeking. v