When Hoban Korean Barbecue opened in Uptown in 2016, manager Fred Hwang had already devoted four years to making the restaurant possible. Before that, well, he grew up in one.
“My parents met while working in a Korean restaurant together,” Hwang says. His mom was a server and his dad was head chef, and after getting married they decided to open their own restaurant: Hoban Korean Restaurant in Eagan. “Our Eagan restaurant has very humble beginnings,” he says. “They were doing everything. They had no other staff for the first few years.” Almost 25 years later, it was time to expand (due to the fact the Eagan location rarely had an empty table), and having grown up in the restaurant, Hwang knew exactly what he wanted to do.
He wanted to create a Korean barbecue restaurant “that I didn’t just want our family to be proud of, but that everyone in Minnesota could be proud of,” he says. There weren’t, and aren’t, many Korean barbecue options in the state, but “I wanted it to be competitive for all the Korean barbecue restaurants. Not just Minnesota,” he says.
So he spent two years studying construction and restaurant codes. Then he spent a year designing the restaurant himself, going through hundreds of designs and having two approved by the city before deciding on the current design. “I had to figure out how to make it aesthetically pleasing,” he says. “You’ll notice a lot of symmetry, down to the direction of the grains on the floor tiles.” Also taken into consideration was that his furniture wasn’t modular. For Korean barbecue, every table is a grill, which requires a gas line below and a vent above. One more year was spent on construction, adding to Hwang’s contribution of blood, sweat and tears (literally—he walked away with stitches and a battle scar after a construction injury).
But it was worth it, as he’s seen diners become more educated in Korean barbecue. What those diners can expect is a feast of delicious and beautiful food, with the added bonus of being an interactive grilling experience.
For starters, every meal comes with banchan—small side dishes to accompany your dinner: kimchi, fish cakes, bean sprouts, broccoli, pickled or spicy daikon radishes, and potato salad.
The question is, what meat to choose? This writer recommends the wang galbi, or beef short ribs. “If you like ribeye, you’ll like this,” Hwang says. And if you have a four-legged friend who likes bones, you’ll have a treat to bring home. Or if you’re thinking pork, try hang jun sal, or pork neck with a little seasoning salt to add as you cook. And if you’re a seafood fan, the saewoo (shrimp) are big, meaty and have just the right kick from a pepper marinade.
When it’s time to grill, Hwang has one item of advice: “Make sure the grill is hot,” he says. “You want to hear the sizzle when the meat hits.”
Eat the meat on its own, dip it in sesame oil or arrange it into a lettuce wrap with julienned scallions, bean sprouts, garlic, peppers and soybean paste. It’s a choose your own adventure, and you can’t go wrong.
But you don’t have to cook your whole meal. Try the gaeran jjim (egg soufflé) for a light and satisfying addition, and if you’re feeling adventurous, get the spicy jjuggmi samgyupsal—baby octopus and pork belly.
The meals—and how you eat them—are flexible, as is the restaurant itself, Hwang says. “It’s good for dates, good for friends and family, and for showing people from out of town a good time,” he says.
Beverages for Your Barbeque
If you’re looking for a drink to go with your meal, Hwang has a recommendation. “When you eat Korean barbecue it’s very common to drink soju and Hite,” he says. Hite is a Korean beer that actually mixes well with soju. A rice wine, “Soju to Korea is basically what sake is to Japan. It’s what tequila is to Mexico. It’s what vodka is to Russia,” he says. If in Korea and someone asks to go for a drink, “They don’t ask, ‘What are we drinking?’ It’s soju,” Hwang explains.
And you don’t just crack open a bottle: “When you open it, you have to make a tornado” he says, by giving it a good swirl. Then use your elbow to hit the bottom of the bottle, which will break the seal, “and then you open it.” The reasoning behind this tradition is lost, Hwang says, but it’s a fun trick to show friends.
If you’re not ready to tackle that tradition, this next one is easy: “In Korea, when you drink you never pour for yourself—you always pour for someone else,” he says. To show mutual respect, you should pour with two hands, and accept with two hands as well.
“They say if you consider the taste of soju to be sweet, you’ve lived a hard life,” Hwang says. “And if it’s bitter to you, you haven’t lived hard enough.”