Put down that pad thai and give Korean cuisine its due

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Mung bean kimchi pancakes at Chan. (Photo courtesy Chan Restaurant)

Chef Heong Soon Park’s restaurant Chan is one of several new Korean places causing a stir in Seattle.

Korean Americans make up one of the largest Asian ethnic groups in the U.S., but it often seems like Korean cuisine is overshadowed by other types of Asian food.

For instance, there are only 304,000 Thais in the U.S., versus 1.7 million Koreans, yet pad thai is a part of Seattle culture that’s as fixed as bicycles, while only a small minority can tell bulgogi from bibimbap.

Maybe Korean food’s obscurity is due to the fact that many first-generation Korean immigrants (who largely came to the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s) don’t run restaurants, but instead became green grocers and dry cleaners.

Or is it because some of the Koreans who do own restaurants serve other kinds of food instead? Many of the teriyaki joints that line University Way, for example, are run by Koreans who’ve found that Japanese food is more marketable to the masses.

Whatever the reason for Korean food’s lesser standing, this may soon be changing, as a new wave of younger Korean American chefs have risen to the limelight.

As a Korean American myself, I was excited by the Tweeting Korean taco truck in LA; the opening of Revel in Fremont; the appearance of Edward Lee in Top Chef.  And recently, I was thrilled when not just one, but two Korean-owned restaurants, Joule and Chan made it to The Seattle Times top 10 restaurants of 2013 list.

Joule, co-owned by Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, who also run Revel, has long been praised for its inspired Korean-French menu since its opening in 2007.

Chef Heong Soon Park (left) prepares for dinner service at Chan Restaurant at Pike Place Market. (Photo by Soyon Im)Chef Heong Soon Park (left) prepares for dinner service at Chan Restaurant at Pike Place Market. (Photo by Soyon Im)

Chan, a bistro tucked away in the Pike Place Market, has a success story of its own. The place is a gem for people like me who live and work in downtown and don’t want to trek to the suburbs for decent Korean food.

Like Joule, Chan’s offerings may not be what my Korean grandmother would make in her kitchen. But the food is tasty, the cocktails playful, and the restaurant’s contemporary décor and open kitchen all make for a more urban dining experience.

Owner-chef Heong Soon Park bills his fare as “modern Korean fusion.” Each dish is artfully presented. For the bulgogi beef sliders, mounds of barbecued meat and spicy pickles sit between golden home-made buns. Even the usually humble dukbokki, or spicy fried rice cakes, glistens beautifully with a light coating of oil and hot pepper paste.

Lest anyone think “fusion” just means a bunch of disparate ingredients thrown together, Park insists that there’s a fine art to doing it well.

“Fusion is very difficult,” Park says. “It may really screw you up. If you don’t understand the original cuisine, you’ll go nowhere. You need to learn how to walk before you can run.”

As I talk to him, I’m reminded of Picasso’s famous quote, “learn the rules like a pro, so that you can break them like an artist.”

Park spends a lot of time with his staff at Chan sharing Korean recipes and experimenting with new ones. Ninety percent of their trials do not make it to the menu, partly because of the process.

“We have only 15 minutes to cook from start to finish. A lot of things have to be prepped. But some things have to be made fresh,” Park says “At home, you can take two hours to make dinner. But obviously things don’t work that way in a restaurant.”

Server Hayley Lund at Bacco Café, serving breakfast and lunch upstairs from Chan. (Photo by Soyon Im)Server Hayley Lund at Bacco Café, serving breakfast and lunch upstairs from Chan. (Photo by Soyon Im)

As if all this, plus a wife and two children, weren’t enough to keep him busy, Park is also the owner of Bacco Cafe, the bustling brunch spot right above Chan on the corner of Pine 1st Ave and Stewart. Park bought the restaurant in 2006 from the previous owner, and proceeded to change the menu to focus on local ingredients. Working with neighboring merchants at the Pike Place Market, Park is also getting involved in the growing of food, and has recently gotten a half-acre farm in Woodinville.

From the outset, the two places, Bacco and Chan can’t be more different. Bacco is bright and Mediterranean and serves fresh squeezed orange juice and brioche French toast. Downstairs, Chan is darker and intimate for nighttime martinis and fried oysters with kimchi tartar sauce. At this point, the menus don’t overlap at all, and there’s not even a hint of Asian fusion in Bacco’s daily breakfast and lunch offerings.

But Park does muse about experimenting with eggs benedict with a miso hollandaise sauce and a bibimbap with bacon and eggs. Maybe in the near future we’ll be waking up to a different kind of breakfast.

Soyon Im is a writer and photographer in Seattle.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Bacco is actually located at the corner of Stewart and First Ave. The intersection of Pine and Stewart is a physical impossibility in Seattle.

  2. The Kimchi House restaurant recently opened here in Ballard in the space that used to house O’Shan Sushi. Fairly traditional Korean fare with some modern twists like their Kimchi Fries. They make their own kimchi for sale/take home, too. The kale kimchi is quite tasty. Take out or eat in.

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