"My dad hit me with a mop handle until it broke, and I'm curled up crying and laughing," says Yang. "'Damn it, I can't even beat you right!'" he laughs, mimicking his father.
Get seven Korean chefs at the same table, and the conversation turns to their parents.
"Believe it or not," says Koi Fusion's Bo Kwon from the other side of the table, "I was the good kid in the family." Just minutes before, he'd been comparing notes with Kim Jong Grillin's Han Ly Hwang on where to get gold grills for his teeth, and pointing out the faint echo of a penis his tattoo artist had drawn—like a disgruntled Disney cartoonist—on his left arm.
"You were the good kid," Yang tells him. "I was Jerry Springer."
The restaurant where we're sitting, Han Oak, is best known as a more staid Korean prix-fixe spot, with $45 meals served on weekend nights. The space is half modernist loft, half walled garden, with patio furniture and kids playing. But ever since chef Peter Cho started serving up a Sunday-Monday party menu of noodles and dumplings, the backyard restaurant behind the Ocean has become a sort of home base for Korean chefs in town. On those nights, Hwang says, you can just pop in and expect at least one other chef to be there.
Sure, part of the reason is that Sunday and Monday are a chef's traditional nights off, which means seemingly everyone else in eyeshot has a food handler's card, aside from the kids blowing bubbles onto the tables. The owners of Shift Drinks, Roscoe's and 4-4-2 are all just tables away.
And part of it is the prices, just $9-$12 a plate. "Chefs don't really have a lot of money," Hwang told WW a few weeks earlier. "I kept wondering how [Cho] did it, and then noticed that everything he's serving is stuff you make at home when you're broke. It's kind of genius." Low prices are the secret, jokes FOMO Chicken's Sun Kim, to getting a lot of Koreans in a room.
But none of that would matter if it weren't for Cho's terrific cocktail-happy menu of wild flavors and rich homestyle comforts, an ever-changing menagerie that always seems to include a $10 plate of thick-breaded and juicy Korean fried chicken so laden with fat and spice our server said she sometimes just noshes on the dredged skins.
Elsewhere on the menu are chive-pork dumplings ($9) so delicate I almost cried the first time I tasted one, a beautifully salty and crispy blood sausage drenched in over-easy egg, and a Korean-Chinese jja jang myun hand-pulled noodle dish made with fermented black beans. On the right night, when those thickly al-dente noodles come with butternut squash that melts into the bean sauce, that jja jang murders every other version in town.
When you ask how the chef group at Han Oak came together, though, most chefs at the table just nod to Hwang, who knows seemingly every chef in town, and to Yang.
"I was already coming down to the Stray Dogs nights," says Yang, referring to the hot dog pop-up Cho once shared with Chalino chef Johnny Leach. "I was here the first week. I've had so much Peter Cho dick in my mouth!"
"Quote of the night," Kwon says.
Cho's father stops by to introduce himself, taking a break from helping out at the restaurant, but he stops shaking hands when he sees Yang. "I know you already!" he says.
Usually it's just two or three people, Hwang says of meals at Han Oak. But tonight, on Zilla chef Kate Koo's birthday, the whole gang is here, including her husband Kyo, head chef at Danwei Canting. But the Koos are almost never both at the table, instead chasing down a two-foot tall kid whose shirt brags he's the World's Greatest Eater. He rarely sits still long enough to prove it.
Everyone at the table is going a little bit nuts for the budae jjigae when it arrives, but are horrified to discover I've somehow never tried the dish.
"You know what this is, right?" says Matt Choi, who with his mother makes the Choi's Kimchi that shows up in local supermarkets and a wealth of restaurant plates around town, pointing to the gallimaufry of orange cheese, spam, hot dog and ramen noodle. Patiently, he and Kwon explain the dish's origins as a comfort food for American army-base staff in Korea. "That's why there's American cheese," Kwon says. "They raided the pantries of all the GIs."
"Dishes like that," says Kate Koo, "People try to make them with expensive ingredients and it's not right. You need the cheap stuff."
"Oh yeah," says Kim. "That's the Costco meat. You know that burnt tire flavor?"
It is, as advertised, perfectly made for my trashy American palate, a bath of salt and fat and spice that's like an explosion at the grade-school cafeteria.
"It's maybe the perfect stoner food," Hwang says.
By the time the meal's done, the table has shot through three of every item on the menu, leaving nothing but scratched plates behind. Perhaps as a result of those Hite-spiked kimchi micheladas, the chefs decide to pick a credit card at random off the tray to see who pays for the whole tab.
It comes up Bo Kwon, but nobody has the heart to actually make him pay for all of it. One after another, hands raise up toward the server, each with another credit card.
Han Oak, 511 NE 24th Ave., 971-255-0032, hanoakpdx.com. Noodle and Dumpling Night every Sunday and Monday, 5-10 pm.