Friday, April 18, 2008

Han Kuk Kwan Korean Restaurant

Restaurant: Han Kuk Kwan Korean Restaurant
Address: 5032 S 108th St. (Left of Valentino's)
Website: None
Genres: Korean
Check Constraints: Unknown
Chain: No | More Omaha Locations: No

  • Gunmandu Appetizer (~$4.50?)
    • Unsure of the name. Fried beef dumplings.
  • Omletrice ($8.25)
This place was a small restaurant in a strip-mall. There only a few customers over the noon hour aside from us. They did have a bit of competition though, because there are several other Asian eateries, Valentino's, and a full compliment of fast food in the area. There was only one lady working. She did the waitressing, cooking, and cashiering. She had a pretty thick accent and was a bit hard to understand at times. They had several TVs going on different channels. The menu had a good number of options and some nice big pictures. If I've left anything important out, hopefully the others will fill in.

The dumplings were really good. They were quite juicy, packed full, and had subtle flavor. I don't remember what the menu called them, but they were item #2. Looking around on the web, I find that fried dumplings like this are called gunmandu in Korean. There were six on the plate. I'm not sure if they normally come with six or if we got that many because there were six of us at the table. The other appetizer was a little unremarkable, but good. It had kimchi in it, but I didn't really notice it. The flavor was definitely not anywhere near as strong as the cold kimchi we got later on.

The little bowls of additional food were interesting. The bean sprouts were pretty good with nothing unexpected. The green stuff was very green. It seemed like Swiss chard type green in a vinegary dressing. I thought that one was pretty good too. The cucumbers were pretty boring to me, but I'm not a big fan of "plain" cucumber. It wasn't exactly plain, but it tasted mostly plain. The cubed stuff was interesting. Crunchy and spicy. The kimchi was the stand-out, but mostly because it was a very strong flavor. It was a sort of sour-tart flavor that's hard to describe. I didn't think it was too bad, but I couldn't eat very much of it since it was so strong.

The omletrice was simply fried rice with beef and a hard-fried egg on top. It was pretty basic, but delicious. I want to call the rice "greasy", but I'm not sure if that is the word. It wasn't dry, however. It wasn't too hard to eat most of it with chopsticks either. I had to resort to the spoon near the end of the plate however.

Service was a bit slow, but I'm guessing that was because there was only one person working. The lady had a bit of trouble getting the checks to the right people, and since the checks were written in Korean, we couldn't help ourselves too easily. She had a bit of trouble with counting my change as well. Overall though, I was pleased with the meal.

  • Chicken & Potato Stew (15.95)
  • Omletrice ($8.25)
I did not intend to spend 25 dollars on this meal. I actually asked for a cup of soup, which is listed at two dollars on the menu, but was apparently misunderstood and received a large cast iron pot intended for two people to split.

I have very little good to say about this meal, sadly. The chicken and potato stew was so spicy that I couldn't actually taste the chicken, and it was so far beyond my heat level that I couldn't actually eat all of it. I passed it off to Cham, who enjoyed it quite a bit. The omletrice is also nothing special, and was rather heavier on the vegetable flavor than I prefer. It definitely wasn't worth eight bucks.

What I did like, quite a bit, in fact, were the two appetizers. The dumplings were like the age gyoza you can get at Sakurabana, but they weren't so thoroughly deep fried, and they were quite a bit better stuffed, and had a much more vibrant flavor. The other appetizer, whose name nobody can remember, was also quite good. It reminded me of potato pancakes, and having tasted the kimchi later, I couldn't tell there was kimchi in them at all.

Speaking of kimchi, I am willing to try almost anything once. Kimchi has had its try, and I am never going to touch it raw again.

  • Pork Bulgogi ($8.25)
  • Vegetable Sides (Free)
    • Kimchi (cold)
    • Pickled Bean Sprouts
    • Pickled Cucumber
    • Swiss Chard?
    • Pickled Kohlrabi?
When you decide to start an ethnic restaurant, there's a very tough choice to be made. Either you can migrate the dishes and flavors of the ethnicity towards the mainstream palate of the country - or more correctly city - that you're in, or you can decide to maintain the traditional dishes and hope the novelty is enough to draw in people with broad tastes. Most Chinese places in the U.S. fall into the former category, for instance. But I feel pretty confident in saying that Hun Kuk Kwan lands solidly in the traditional category.

Which isn't to say it's not worth a shot. The place is, while sparsely decorated, nice and outfitted with an optimistic number of tables. Its menu is fairly clear and mostly grammatically correct and, as Moogle notes, provides lots of pictures... it's quite obvious they've gone to some lengths to make a person walking in off the street feel comfortable. And yes, the conversation with our waitress had a little difficulty; I guess that didn't bug me enough to affect my impressions of the restaurant.

Those impressions being favorable. A meal at this kind of place can be a little dangerous, from the standpoint of things like heat levels or ... "interesting" flavors, so I was prepared for some disappointment, but the pork bulgogi - which is a hot and spicy pork stir-fried with onions and green onions - was rather delicious. There was some element to the flavor which took me a minute to adapt to; I don't think I could pick it out of a line-up, but pretty soon I was plowing through the meal, and the only criticism I have for it is that the portions were perhaps a little small for $8.25. It does come with rice, which helps a little.

As Moogle notes, you get five little side dishes, which I've listed for completeness up top. I'm pretty sure the "cubed stuff" he talks about was kohlrabi, but honestly that's just a guess. It could easily have been a root vegetable or something similar. I'm also pretty sure they're supposed to be mixed into the food for flavoring, but this visit I was trying to taste everything separately to get an idea of what would taste good later. I think ND and Moogle have covered the appetizers pretty well, so onward.

The soup ND passed off to me was delicious, and probably pretty spicy if you're not a regular capsaicin junkie. The bulgogi, for what it's worth, was not what I call "thai-level" spicy, and the soup came in above that. Additionally, the cucumbers, kohlrabi, and kimchi all had some heat to them. None of that's mentioned in the menu, though, so the place is basically a capsaicin minefield if you're not careful. But back to the soup - it really seemed to only have chicken, potatoes, a base, and spices in it, but was flavorful and filling. The bowl's pretty large, too, so I can see why it's meant for two.

I'm kind of eager to go back, if only to try some of the things I skipped over. Oh, a note; since there was only one person running the place, the food took a while to start coming out, and though it came out steadily, it took a little bit for everything to get cooked, plated and delivered. My advice is to go for dinner when there are more people manning the place, or alternatively to have multiple people in your group order the same thing - that will probably speed things up.

So in short; definitely give it a try if you're feeling experimental. A little effort will almost surely find you something you like.

  • Bibimbab ($8.25)
Much has already been said about the appetizers, but I'll repeat anyway: they were spectactular. I found the sides very interesting. Before this, I'd never had kimchi in any form. I took a rather large mouthful and I could feel it bubbling on my tongue. At first I was put off, but in retrospect I think it's something I could learn to enjoy. The pickled cucumbers were delicious. They tasted almost like bread & butter pickles but with a nice kick. The pickled bean sprouts and pickled green leafy was unremarkable, but not bad. The pickled kholrabi (?) had a nice crunch and the punch of an onion afterward.

For my entree I ordered the Bibimbab. I was advised before coming that I should try "that thing that comes in a stone bowl." After picking up the menu and saying the name quietly to myself a couple of times and chuckling after each, I noticed that this dish was the one suggested. I ordered and waited. What came was a metal bowl of rice with veggies (mostly julienned cucumber from what I recall), a small amount of beef, and a whole fried egg on top. I mixed it up as Kirby advised and started eating. It didn't exactly taste how you might expect. The egg and beef were pretty much nonfactors and dominated by the rice and cucumbers. If you ignore the fact that there was egg and beef in the bowl, I suppose you could say it tasted about how you would expect--like rice and cucumbers mixed in a bowl. The whole draw of the dish, from what I was told, was that it was served in a searing hot stone bowl. The bowl would crunchify the rice resting against it and give the whole thing a nice texture. I looked for the wikipedia article to verify that I did, indeed, order "that thing that comes in a stone bowl" and I found out that not only was I shortchanged a whole hot stone bowl, the mixture was supposed to be topped with gochujang (chili pepper paste)! The bibimbab was definitely hurting for the bit of flavor the gochujang would have supplied. I ended up having to pour on a decent amount of soy sauce to compensate.

I half suspect that the lack of gochujang was an oversight by our harried hostess, but that thought doesn't assuage my sore disappointment. I will most likely return (the gyoza was just too good not too) and I will most likely try the bibimbab again, but this time I will be more forward about my stone bowl and gochujang and I will probably come at dinner time, when hopefully there will be more staff onhand.


TheCriticalWife said...

The Omaha Critic and I frequently go to Han Kuk Kwan, as it's one of his favorites. I have found that for me, it's definitely a matter of finding something I like and sticking with it. OC is a little more adventurous, so he's not put off by pots of soup with entire fish backbones in them and such.

At Han Kuk Kwan, I've found that I definitely like their bibimbop dishes (they have straight up, and then one that's chopchae bibimbop) Both are good. My kids also love their galbee, which is basically just bbq'd meat, which they love.

For the appetizers, I think they call their version of postickers or dumplings "yakimandu". They're very good, as is the korean version of sushi, which I can't remember the name of. Come to think of it, I don't think there's anything on their appetizer menu we haven't loved.

Of their sides, I have to admit I'm not a big kimchi fan, but the sprouts and the pickled carrot/radish dish are my favorites. Put a little of those on the bibimbop, and you're set!

NinjaDebugger said...

'fraid I'm not terribly eager to go back there, though the rest of the group probably would. Looking over Korean recipes in general, I think I'm just not well suited to eating Korean. I think I could go for just eating three or four dishes worth of appetizers, though. Those dumplings were great.

Chamelaeon said...

I really feel like I ought to go for dinner at some point, and give the bibimbop a try. And probably an appetizer or two, from the sound of it. I'm trying to cultivate a more adventurous palate, but that's turning out to be hard to do without eating out a whole lot.

Koreananne said...

I just found this blog and an excited to try some of the places reviewed. I've been to Han Kuk Kwan once, and it's close to eating in Korea, but at not quite the same. The little side dishes that come at every meal are called "panchan/banchan". The one that was thought to be kohlrabi was probably kkakdugi - a daikon radish kimchi. The green one was probably spinach dressed with garlic and sesame oil. As for the cabbage kimchi, it is definitely a required taste, it took 2 months of eating it at every meal for me to like it. The bibimbop means mixed rice. If you want to one in the stone pot, that is dolsot bibimbop. Usually the red pepper paste/gochujang is on the table in a little pot, as Koreans add it heavily to many things. The Korean version of sushi is Kimbap and is like a snack/picnic food, and does not have vinegared rice. Overall, I think Korean food is a little harder to get acquainted with than some other ethnic food (speaking from experience from living in Korea) because of the spicy and picked nature of a lot of the food. It is more difficult without knowing the language for the food as well. On a side note, Korean utensils are stainless steel chopsticks - though not at Han Kuk Kwan - and a spoon. Koreans eat soup and rice with the spoon, so don't feel bad that the chopsticks didn't work for the omrice. We do not really have any other places around here, but if you go to a city with a larger Korean population, I would highly recommend classic Korean bbq with the grill in the table to get kalbi or bulgogi (which are the marinated meats). It's fun, especially with a bottle of Soju, the Korean alcohol.

Chamelaeon said...

@Koreananne: Thanks for the comment! It's nice to know we're getting the word out about some of the places we've eaten.

Classic Korean BBQ sounds like it'd be a fun experience - hopefully we can get someplace like that in the Omaha metro eventually.

Thanks also for some of the names of the appetizers and dishes. It's a lot easier to discuss such things when you've got easy terms for them.