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Stellar Korean Food Is Hidden Inside This Suburban Mall

By Chicagoist_Guest in Food on Jun 9, 2016 3:15PM

Korean Ramyun at Hanbun. Photo by Jennifer Olvera.

By Jennifer Olvera

Welcome to Inside Story, our series about eating places hiding inside of other businesses. That great coffee counter inside the mall? That awesome sushi stand inside the supermarket? The donut window out the back of your favorite neighborhood restaurant? That's what this is all about. Last time, we scored amazing empanadas and alfajores from an Argentinian Wine Shop. Now, it's time for stellar Korean in an Asian mall and food court.

Usually, food court fare doesn’t wow. And it certainly isn’t destination-worthy. However, Hanbun — tucked into Westmont’s dank International Mall — is an exception to that unwritten rule. Why? Its food is visually stunning and its flavors spot-on, thanks to Chef David Park, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America. Park was part of the opening team at Grant Achatz’s The Aviary. Prior to that, he worked at Takashi, TRU, L20 and Le Bernardin. So, yeah, he knows his stuff.

As for the setting, it’s nothing to write home about. Tucked between forgettable Chinese and hybrid Asian food stalls, along with a slightly more memorable dumpling counter, Hanbun is a Korean dazzler that has all the makings of a great meal. The food court itself is rimmed with a couple of shops, including a travel agent and a sundry store. The two-story building features a smattering of tables on the main floor, a few skylights that aluminate the atrium and some cracked-Naugahyde booths that line its perimeter. Next door is an Asian market with mostly empty shelves. That’s the extent of the ambiance, which is to say there’s none.

Rice cake skewers. Photo by Jennifer Olvera.

That said, this isn’t fast food in the traditional sense. While Hanbun isn’t the only game in town, it is the standout. Come during weekend dim sum; while Hanbun doesn’t offer dim sum, other adjacent spots do. On weekend mornings and afternoons, the food court fills with families, who teeter through the space with piled-high plates of churro-like doughnuts. These weekend-only numbers are a welcome accompaniment to Hanbun’s riches; however, you’ll wait in a separate line for them. And wait, you will.

The menu at Hanbun is short and sweet. Each of the starters is worthy of your time (and caloric intake). If I had to pick just one, my money’s on the chewy inside, crisped-outside rice cake skewers. In the event you’ve never encountered these before, they might throw you off. Basically, they’re toothsome, cylindrical noodles (five to an order). They’re lightly browned, speared with a skewer, cloaked in sweet gochujang (fermented Korean chili sauce) and showered with roasty sesame seeds. Since they’re only $2.25, you should also get some lovely pork buns. The tender, tender meat is tucked into a bao-like “taco” that’s topped with lightly pickled vegetables. Your other first-course option is the veg pancakes, the most expensive of the bunch at a modest $5.15.

Check the handwritten board to the left of the counter for daily specials, which may include rich pork and kimchi soup. And about that kimchi? It’s good. Really good. So, order a side at the very least.

Black bean noodles at Hanbun. Photo by Jennifer Olvera.

Among the edited list of entrees, two in particular stand out. Say you’re dining alone. The one I’d suggest zeroing in on is the jja jang myun, porky, umami-rich black bean noodles that are christened with nuoc mam (fish sauce), marinated cucumbers and chives. On the downside, more than once these noodles arrived overcooked. So, you could always play it safe and opt for the Korean Ramyun, its salty, spicy broth a shockingly rich, full-of-depth foil for tender chicken, a soft-poached egg, sesame leaves, pickled enoki and scallions. If you really dug the rice cakes appetizer, you’ll be happy to know they also star in the spicy rice cake entrĂ©e, mingling with fish cakes and pickled carrots.

Solid, if less jaw-dropping, is the kalbi plate (marinated short ribs with barley rice) and the familiar, but expertly prepared, bibimbap. Banchan (small plates that accompany Korean meals) do not come with, but they can be ordered at an additional cost. You’ll get a chef’s selection of them, along with soup and barley rice, for under nine bucks.

So, is this fast food? Not really. You’ll wait about fifteen minutes for your number to be called after placing your order. However, the wait is forgotten once your selections arrive on modern dishes, atop cafeteria-style trays.

In the event you’re hankering for dessert, there’s a stall selling fruit smoothies with or without tapioca pearls to the far left of Hanbun. On weekends, there’s the aforementioned Chinese doughnuts, too. It’s obvious where to go — just join the folks who queue up for them. Oh, and bring your own powdered or cinnamon sugar if you like them sweet.

Hanbun is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. In other words, the hours are atypical, but at least they’re consistent. The eatery also hosts special chef’s tasting menus for six- to-nine guests. The juhnyuk (dinner) menu is offered by advance reservation and rings in at around $65 per person.

Hanbun is in the International Mall, 665 Pasquinelli Dr., #108, Westmont.