The best, most fun thing about the new Hoban in Uptown is that you get to sit inches from a grill, watching your meat sizzle and pop, in touch with the very thing that makes us human. Humans are the cooking ape, you know. That’s Harvard professor of biological anthropology Richard Wrangham’s phrase, explicated at length in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. What was the thing that ushered in the great leap forward in human evolution, the thing that turned us from big-toothed, tree-leaf-eating, tree-nest-making critters into ground-living, tree-leaf-uninterested, perimeter-defending, big-brained, small-toothed Vikings fans? It was our mastery of fire and cooking, Wrangham argues. If you want a beach read that will make your s’mores roast feel like the most significant thing since land-walking, read this book.
Wrangham is the first person I’ve ever read to really look at human biology and explain why home and hearth, where the food gets cooked, are everything. He used to be an assistant to Jane Goodall and lived in the forest for many years studying chimpanzees. His ‘ah-ha’ moment came when he tried to eat what they ate, and learned that chimps’ main food source—undomesticated jungle figs—are, to humans, godawful. Local jungle-living pygmies confirmed this, telling Wrangham that even in times of famine they could not eat what the chimpanzees did. Turns out, chimps spend a solid 50 percent of their time chewing their food, which they eat at the place they grab it. Humans, even those living as people did before modern times, only spend 10 percent of their day chewing, and typically bring their food to a fire to cook before eating.
For homo sapiens, writes Wrangham, food is only half-used when eaten raw—this includes things like green bananas, potatoes, even eggs and meat. Turns out, scientists have found that if you limited your diet to nothing but raw wheat, you’d die—humans just can’t digest it. Croissants are another matter. This is why wheat sheaves are something we decorate with and a loaf of bread calls to you. This is why a steak in the butcher shop makes you think of lighting the grill. There is no more human attribute than wanting to be by the fire, with your loved ones, cooking. And that is what makes Hoban’s new outpost absolutely satisfying.
Even though it’s terrifically satisfying, I should clarify that Hoban is not altogether remarkable. Compared to the spots in New York and Los Angeles, it’s right in the middle—totally good and average. But you should go anyway, because Korean at-table barbecue is in itself nothing but delightful. In fact, some critics might even make the case that said delight is what makes us human.
photo by Caitlin Abrams
Here’s what you’ll find in Uptown at the new Hoban: A spic-and-span, brand-new box completed with the popular stone finishes enjoyed by modern people, and then a bunch of tables firmly anchored to the ground because they’re fed by massive gas jets, each overhung with a strong ventilation hood. Hoban, of course, has been a family-style Korean spot in Eagan for many decades, and by family-style I mean it’s just basic family cooking—the everyday blue-plate specials of Korea, humble and satisfying. No doubt every third person who has eaten there these many decades has asked, “Why can’t we have at-table Korean barbecue?” Lord only knows it has been the request I’ve fielded most as a restaurant critic: Why can’t we get one of these things? We finally do.
If you’re not at all familiar with the ways of Korean, at-table barbecue, here’s how it goes: At Hoban, if you order a minimum of two barbecue items—say, pork belly or marinated, thinly sliced beef bulgogi, or vegetables and marinated baby squid—a server will replace the flat aluminum plate in the center of your barbecue table with a two-sided grill. Then come a plate of lettuce leaves and half a dozen housemade banchan, such as kimchi, pickled bean sprouts, and spicy radish cubes. Eventually he or she will bring you plates of raw meat, seafood, or vegetables, along with long metal tongs. They might start your first round of grillables, or might not. (Service at the Hoban Uptown is in the spirit of: All us teens are gonna make this work!, and mainly they do.)
The most delectable part of Hoban is those first few minutes, with your meat sizzling in front of you, the smoke wafting by, the bubbles and popping, the sheer riveting primal moment of food cooking right there, at arm’s length. As the food sizzles, you can move it with your tongs. You’ll quickly find the hot spots and cool spots, you’ll sense how much char you want, and how much you don’t. You’ll then seize the cooked food from the grill and decide where to go from there. Some of the meat you’ll eat straight-up, others you’ll drizzle with sauce or stuff into the lettuce leaves for wraps. If you run out of lettuce or banchan, your server will replace them free of charge. The place can seem expensive before you get the hang of it, with the two-entrée minimum, but after a visit or two, you’ll find two entrées can easily feed three people, or four with some appetizers.
I’ve tried the place with a bunch of drinking friends—Hoban sells one bottle of soju for $38 (soju is like a strong Korean sake that’s a traditional barbecue accompaniment). The tradition is you can’t fill your own glass; you must get a tablemate to take care of that for you. Or order a Korean beer, Hite, that tastes uncannily like a Heineken. That’s a delightful night out. You’ll find the grill-dads in the crowd, and there you are, shoulder-to-shoulder over the grill, which is a very good place to be. When you’re with drinking buddies, the wang galbi (soy, rice wine, and garlic-marinated short ribs) are a must-order. The salt penetrates the meat and makes it perfect next to a beer. The fat from the short ribs sizzles and smokes, and you’ll end up with the kind of beef that’s nothing but perfectly sizzled, good, chewy char. Don’t miss the bulgogi, either—the chili-soaked meat is so salty and spicy it evokes the same “we will never stop, because joy!” feeling of good bar Buffalo wings. That’s one face of Hoban: camaraderie, soju, spice, pile into an Uber, and call it a very good night out.
photo by Caitlin Abrams
Right hand photograph courtesy of Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl
Exploring the more G-rated side of life, I also tried Hoban with a big party that included five kids, kindergarten through fourth grade, who sat at their very own grill table. I was amazed to see how careful and absorbed they were with the tongs and meat, like playing house but in the real world and with real-world rewards. If you’re ordering for spice-averse folks or little kids, get the chadol baegi, paper-thin slices of un-marinated brisket; they sizzle and turn into very plain good meat. The samgyeopsal was also a huge hit with kids: “Bacon!” they all cried, on spying the pork belly slices. I thought it was a very excellent food adventure for kids, with the caveat that you can’t push tables together, obviously. If you’ve got more than six people you’ll need two tables, so plan accordingly.
Good for friends, good for families, but there’s not too much at Hoban for the Korean food snob, though there is plenty for a Korean food fan. Mushroom tempura is airy and buoyant, haemul pajeon pancakes, either seafood or scallion, are light where they should be and crisp where they should be and flavor-packed all around. The kids would have eaten 67 orders of fried dumplings if we let them. For card-carrying snobs, I entreat you to know these two things before judging the spot: One, beg your servers for a little dish of the ssamjang paste—it has umami depths and fresh scallion notes that make any of the grilled pork dishes better. Also, make a point of getting a bowl of the cold noodle dish bibim naeng myun, in which cold buckwheat noodles meet sweet chili spice and crunchy radishes for a cooling dish to counteract the heat of the grill. It’s delicious.
I suppose I left out one thing: It is possible to go to Hoban in Uptown and sit at the bar and not grill anything at all. It’s possible to simply summon a head-clearing cauldron of kimchi chigae, the soup that’s blood-red with spice and which Hoban has, for many years, made a killer version. It’s possible, but you won’t do it. As soon as you poke your head in the door and smell the smoke of the grill you’ll get a barbecue table, and you’ll barbecue. As you do, you may or may not think, I’m doing this because that’s what man is, the cooking animal. Whether you think it or not it will be true: We cook, therefore we’re human. And now we have a new place to cook, and it’s the best, most fun thing.
2939 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., 612-345-7214, hobanrestaurant.com