East Meets Westmont—Haute cuisine at Hanbun’s Korean counter

June 2017 View more

I learned the culinary meaning of the old saw, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” at a young age, when a city-dwelling aunt led my wide-eyed and warily skeptical suburban family through the cramped aisles of an anonymous Chicago bodega back to a hidden, unadvertised Mexican eatery behind the stockroom. There, amid a space devoid of anything resembling a true dining establishment, I used a warm flour tortilla, handcrafted just feet from where I was sitting, to scrape every last gooey bite of a ridiculous queso fundido from a cast-iron skillet.

That tiny eatery—such that it was—neither earned one of those odd partial quotations in the Zagat guide nor an inch of print in any local publication, yet I can still vividly recall that meal some three decades later. A recent journey to Westmont on a miserable, rainy afternoon for a visit to the ambitiously named (but decidedly uninspiring) International Mall triggered this trip down my personal sensory memory lane, as a seemingly simple lunch at Hanbun rekindled that long-dormant feeling of discovering a truly unexpected dining revelation.

Food Court Find
In truth, there was more than just a chasm of time separating these two remarkable experiences. Unlike the covert taqueria of my youth, Hanbun has seen more than its fair share of accolades and industry press in recent months, something that tends to happen when two Culinary Institute of America–trained proprietors—David Park and Jennifer Tran, whose CVs include past stints at high-profile spots like Alinea and Takashi—decide to start dishing out high-minded takes on Korean staples in a suburban food court. It’s the kind of thing that people eventually take notice of, no matter how hidden you are from the world.

So as my companion and I rolled into that nondescript parking lot, we already knew better than to be completely surprised by what we were about to see and taste. Indeed, the International Mall proved to be—just as so many snark-laden reviews had noted–a fairly demoralizing setting for a midweek lunch. But there in the middle of a row of fast-service egg roll, fried rice and smoothie joints sat the conspicuously refined-looking Hanbun counter, and even though the thrill of discovery had been undermined by the reputation that preceded it, I nevertheless suddenly felt that same sense of discovery from years ago.

Rise Above
Apart from its unusual setting, Hanbun has a number of other quirks up its sleeve, including a very limited entrée selection and lunch-only regular hours Tuesday through Sunday. (A $75-per-person dinner tasting menu for groups of six to eight—served behind the compact counter at a table set up in the kitchen—is available by reservation only, and is already booked late into the fall for weekends.) Diners who can get past these seeming limitations, however, will find that for all its eccentricities, the defining wonder of this place is the food—plain and simple.

Take the pork bun, for instance—as basic and straightforward as can be, and yet here rendered so expertly as to warrant ordering several and calling it a meal. To paraphrase a passage in Amor Towles’ best-selling novel A Gentleman in Moscow, if I were a country, this pork bun would be my flag. Likewise the bulgogi—a delectable pile of marinated beef served with barley rice and topped with an apple and arugula salad—proved to be delicious simplicity defined. The bibimbap, meanwhile, was like a work of art in a bowl, with a gorgeous mélange of vegetables, chicken and nori atop a bed of rice and topped with a soft egg—digging into this Korean still life felt almost like vandalism.

Did we wash all of this magnificence down with canned soda (because that’s pretty much all that was available)? Did we bus our own table? Did we skip dessert (because there wasn’t any)? Yes, yes and yes. And you know what? It mattered not a whit. Because we found what we had come for—a hidden gem of a meal whose memory would last long beyond one afternoon.

665 Pasquinelli Drive, Westmont