Hanjoo Brings Korean Pork Barbecue to the East Village
12 St. Marks Place, New York, NY 10003 (b/n 2nd and 3rd; map); 646-559-8683; hanjoonyc.com
Service: Accomodating, if a little short on English
Setting: Oddly lit but attractive step up from neighboring restaurants; high ceilings and good vents keep your clothes from smelling like pork
Must-Haves: Crystal-grilled pork barbecue, Yook Hwe
Cost: $35-40 per person before drinks
Grade: Recommended with reservations: pork barbecue is destination-worthy, other items are hit and miss
We first encountered Hanjoo* on its home turf in Korean Flushing, when our man Chris Hansen lavished praise on its crispy and succulent crystal-grilled pork barbecue. We don't see this style of barbecue much, a shame given the simple brilliance of the concept: Cook pork belly on an inclined plane of quartz over a gas burner. Let drippings fall into a pile of kimchi. Take delight.
* Not to be confused with Hanjan.
So when another branch of Hanjoo opened in the East Village on Saint Mark's Place, we paid a visit quickly, and yup, there was that barbecue pork again, still awesome. It's interesting to note that the chintzy stretch St. Marks is now bookeneded by Flushing imports: Xi'an Famous Foods on one side, Hanjoo on the other, and both are good enough to send us dodging past tourists, smoking teenyboppers, and lines outside questionable dollar pizza joints for another meal.
Which is why we're puzzled about Hanjoo. On our first visit and three subsequent trips, the restaurant has been more than half empty during peak hours. This street is a madhouse at night, and neighboring ramen joints and Chinese restaurants do well enough. So why aren't people going here?
If you haven't yet, and find yourself with a craving for Korean pork barbecue, don't make the same mistake. Go. But order smartly.
Hanjoo's specialty is that pork, and if you're considering a visit, that's the destination-worthy item. (Those seeking amazing galbi should head out to Queens.) The Pork Combination Platter ($89.95, serves three to four, smaller options available) is the way to go, and while your server may spew some sort of questionable facts at you about the physics of cooking on crystal and how it keeps the pork extra juicy or more flavorful or something like that, the important thing to notice is the pile of fresh kimchi they pile onto the bottom of the tilted slab. As the pork cooks—you'll get thin slices of raw belly that hit the slab still frozen along with thicker slabs or fresh belly—rendering fat drips down and collects in the kimchi, flavoring it.
Try to ignore the kimchi as you work your way through the meat, picking up curled slices with your chopsticks, dipping the crisp edges of sizzling fat into your saucer of sesame oil and salt, tucking each bite into a perilla leaf (or lettuce if you choose), topping it with a marinated scallion salad, and knocking it back. If you let that kimchi sit until the very end, you'll be rewarded with the best bites of the meal. It's kimchi that almost tastes porkier than the pork itself, while still having the bright, fresh crunch, bracing tartness, and mild heat you expect.
The rest of the menu should be seen as a selection of embellishments to your pork order. None quite match it, and some are much better than others, so here's your guide to what to consider—and avoid—during your visit.
Any meal at Hanjoo includes an array of complimentary banchan, and while none are especially remarkable, they're free, and all offer nice contrasting bites with the rich pork. The ones to reach for first: mild, effervescent kimchi; sweet and crunchy simmered lotus root; silky, well chilled eggplant, and mayo-dressed potato salad.
A short stack of Pa Jun ($13.95), savory Korean pancakes, are well worth an order; though perhaps a little greasier than you'd like, they are exceptionally crisp and tender within. The kitchen also does a very nice Yook Hwe ($23.95), a sizable beef tartare where the meat is cut into udon-like strips and topped with an egg yolk, which you mix in along with shreds of crunchy, sweet Asian pear. It's a study in the subtler side of Korean cuisine, where mild sweetness and richness are carefully aligned with cool crunch.
But if these prices are starting to concern you, solid Jap Chae ($13.95) and Godol Bibimbap ($14.95) are more filling compromises. The stone bowl rice develops a slight crust, and its mild seasonings take well to the funky-sweet chili sauce on the side.
My first visit to Hanjoo was with someone allergic to pork, and if I had to visit the restaurant again under similar conditions, I wouldn't mind reordering the Galbi ($25.95). Only the pork gets the crystal grill treatment; the thin cuts of lightly marinated short ribs get grilled over gas flames. They don't take on too much color or crust—a stylistic choice, it seems, designed to emphasize the sweet delicacy of the beef over its grilling process.
Were I with someone who was adamant about skipping barbecue altogether, I might suggest sharing the substantial bowl of Galbi Soup ($17.95). Here the short ribs are thick and meaty and lipsmackingly sweet. They look undercooked, boxy in shape and still adhered to their bone, but a bite shows just how tender they are—as well cooked, in their own way, as the pork barbecue.
Hanjoo also does Neng Myun noodles ($11.95 to $14.95) well, though the chewy, slippery arrowroot noodles are the best parts of the bowls they come in. Go for the ones with chilled broth and/or spicy sauce, and don't bother paying a premium for the raw skate.
As for missteps to avoid: Dumplings ($11.95 for 8) have flaccid skins and unremarkable fillings. And Duck Barbecue ($23.95), though unique and tasty in theory, doesn't cook long enough on the grill to properly render its thick bands of fat. The rounds of duck breast come out curled, chewy, and a little scorched. Spicy soups also don't seem to be the kitchen's strong point.
So why is Hanjoo not a bigger neighborhood hit? Two thoughts: The kitchen, as with any specialist restaurant, has its strengths and weaknesses that you need to know about before eating here. And then there are the prices, which yes, are higher than Mamoun's and Grand Sichuan down the street. A meal here with barbecue and sides can set you back $30 to $40 per person before drinks.
But the good barbecue is priced competitively with respect to its quality, and most of the good "sides" are easy to share. Hanjoo isn't a cheap restaurant, but if you order right, I wouldn't call it a bad deal either. St. Marks could use more places like it.