NORMALLY, YOU DON’T DRIVE OUT TO WESTMONT’S International Mall unless you’ve got a craving for Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup. Today though, you’re dealing with outbound Loop traffic to find an Alinea-influenced tasting menu in a western Chicago suburban food court. You question your sanity, but David Park just wants to throw a party. The chef at Westmont’s modern Korean mall joint, Hanbun, puts on one of Chicago’s most intimate tasting menu experiences inside a portrait of ethnoburb suburbia.

Chicago has a modern Korean joint in Parachute, and coincidentally Intro’s on a Korean tasting menu right now. But reflecting Park’s background working for the Alinea group, Hanbun aims to be defter, more thoughtful and composed than its peers. It lives at the intersection of Chicago’s high end tasting menu meals and a flavor profile that’s relatively new in fine dining—not to mention, the intimacy of sitting in a food court stall with the kitchen a half dozen feet away at all times.

Jennifer Tran and Dave Park

Jennifer Tran and David Park

Intimacy & Hospitality is the name of the Juhnyuk, or tasting, menu, an eight course meal for parties of eight after hours in the deserted food court. “We have it in our kitchen, it’s a very intimate and comfortable kitchen,” Park’s girlfriend and only other cook, Jennifer Tran, says. Hell, I’ve been at larger dinner parties at friends’ apartments. If you didn’t know everybody around the large table before dinner, you will by the end. The affordable price point—currently $63 per person—doesn’t hurt, either. And the couple hosting the party make it feel like you’ve been let in on a secret, rather than a formal resturant. Tran says, “The food is a big part of it, but I think the most substantial part is hospitality—whoever greets you is what you come back for.”

Hamachi crudo with apples and Fresno chile

Hamachi crudo with apples and Fresno chile

Sousvide egg and rice with marinated vegetables (vegetarian supplement to dinner menu)

Sousvide egg and rice with marinated vegetables (vegetarian supplement to dinner menu)

Venison with kabocha squash puree and sunchokes

Venison with kabocha squash puree and sunchokes

 

 

DAVE PARK AND JENNIFER TRAN ARE a perfectly modern American couple. Dave emigrated with his family to suburban New Jersey at age 10 from Korea, while Jennifer is a Vietnamese-American, who grew up in Cicero and elsewhere in Chicagoland. They met at the Culinary Institute of America right after high school, two byproducts of a new type of American suburbia.

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Having grown up in suburbs, they knew that there was a “a void in the suburbs for good food,” as Tran says. This is what would lead to Hanbun, which by day is a modern Korean space that serves as an affordable upmarket lunch for office workers. Park wrestles with the idea of how being an Asian kid eating Asian food “made us different—in our household, it was a side of rice, side of soup, and 3 different types of kimchi” while growing up. But now, he says, “I look back on and appreciate it.” Like so much of Asia, he treasures his heritage while, at the same time, says “To be modern you’ve got be forward thinking.”

Jjajangmyun: black bean noodles, with pork belly and lime (lunch menu)

Jjajangmyun: black bean noodles, with pork belly and lime (lunch menu)

Nowhere is this more apparent on the lunch menu, where Hanbun serves the best jjajangmyun in the city. Jjajangmyun is a noodle dish with a rich black bean sauce, adapted in Korea from the Chinese cusine of Shandong province. If you ever happen to have a long layover at Incheon Airport, you should take a bus to the nearby city that is held to be the dish’s origin. There, you’ll typically see this dish served with daikon and raw onions in rice vinegar on the side. In Park’s version, he ditches the sides and uses lime instead of rice vinegar to add acidity. It’s a taste of home reimagined through the strip mall suburbs and a Vietnamese-American partner.

Barley porridge with edamame and shimeji mushrooms

Barley porridge with edamame and shimeji mushrooms

We’ve certainly entered the “grain in a bowl” era of cooking. However, Park’s barley porridge with pickled shimeji mushrooms and edamame deserves special mention. It has a clarity of flavor and composed setup that other preparations lack. It’s the meeting of Alinea group technique with a Korean umma’s (mothers) cooking.

Even eating a $10 plate of noodles at lunch, you see the precision of Park’s technique. Though he says that when he left the Culinary Institute of America, “I was 19 early old, I’d really worked nowhere. From the moment I looked at the back door, I was freaking out, goosebumps.”

Chicken and veggie bibimbap (lunch menu)

Chicken and veggie bibimbap (lunch menu)

There are obvious comparisons to be made to the avant-garde of Korean-American chefs—David Chang (Momofuku in New York), Danny Bowien (Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco), Roy Choi (the Kogi taco truck in L.A.), and Bill Kim of Chicago’s Urbanbelly. Park is the first to admit that he was influenced by the school of Korean-American punk chefs, but he’s got a different approach. Rather than taking dishes and throwing in additional flavors and ingredients, Park strips dishes down and refines ingredients and flavors. The quality and precision of each dish is unmatched, especially for coming out of a mall food court kitchen. He’s a perfectionist.

HP

 

Hanbun has only been open since December, but expansion plans include bringing more of the fermentation and prep work in-house. Park and Tran speak of fermenting more of their own kimchi, of producing soy sauce locally and of serving fresh-pressed sesame oil on rice. However, the commodification of Asian foods and dry goods hurts them—there isn’t yet a developed farm-to-table market for Asian pantry ingredients the way there is for the Eurocentric pantry in the United States.

Even so, Hanbun is making top tier food at affordable prices and searching for an audience of suburban office workers and traveling foodies. As Park says, “I want to make good food and I want to make people happy. I’m not trying to take cooking by storm, I’m trying feed people and make them happy.” How could you not love it, lovebirds making food out of love in a Westmont food court?

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Hunter Owens believes ethnoburbs are our future. His most recent piece for Fooditor was The Fooditor Guide to the Norteño Burritos at Burritos Juarez.


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