Seoul food, sort of
Han Korean Bistro in Palo Alto offers filling fare at good prices
Many barn-size restaurants hope for a dash of cachet by slapping "bistro" onto their name. Han Korean Bistro actually fits the definition — a small, unpretentious cafe, serving satisfying down-to-earth food.
Is it the most authentic of Korean food? No. Han Korean Bistro pays its rent on Palo Alto's University Avenue, for heaven's sake, not in Los Angeles' Koreatown or in Santa Clara.
Han is more Americanized. There are sandwiches! That is, barbecued meat or tofu on a French roll, with chips or salad. The meats aren't fabulous. But let's say you're downtown and not in the mood for expensive Italian food, or you have teenagers to feed. Han Korean can hit the spot. Prices are comparable to those at Tofu House, on El Camino in Palo Alto.
Start with the Korean pancake ($7.95) hae mul pa jun. If you're alone, you might end there, too, having enjoyed an omelet-like starter stuffed with vegetables and seafood. The pancake stays crisp on a hot metal griddle, safely encased in a wooden platter.
Soon doo boo ($10.95) is a bubbling pot of silky tofu in spicy-hot soup, sprinkled with your choice of beef, pork, seafood or kimchee. The pork was chewy.
The best dish we tried was dol sot bi bim bop ($11.95). Cooked and served in a stone pot, this Korean casserole keeps the rice wonderfully sticky at the edges. It is topped with a fried egg (the server asks if egg is OK with you), julienne carrots, cabbage, broccoli, and your choice of meat, seafood or tofu.
Dol sot bi bim bop, the menu says, is "most recommended." It also says the BBQ pork spare ribs are "scientifically tested far superior to psychotherapy," so who knows about these claims. More scientifically provable, the menu's green tree icons denote vegetarian items and red chiles are for spicy fare.
BBQ beef bul go ki ($11.95) is a sizzling metal plate piled with cabbage and onions that continue to cook, topped with thin strips of marinated rib eye steak. Is it the tenderest rib eye you've ever tasted? Probably not, but it is only $11.95.
The menu tops out with the Super Rib Combination ($17.95) of beef spare ribs, beef short ribs (cross-cut, kalbi), and pork spare ribs on rice, served with a crisp salad of baby greens and citrus dressing. This mountain of meat looks very Henry VIII, a little embarrassing when being lugged to your table.
Six little kimchee condiments accompanied: napa cabbage with a nice crunch, hot but not overpowered in chile; thin discs of pickled cucumbers; cold potatoes and carrots; pickled bean sprouts; glass noodles.
You can also get a prodigious kimchee sampler ($5.95) of pickled napa cabbage, sweet cucumber and spicy turnip.
Palate-cleansing, melon-flavored Korean gum comes with the check.
Beverages range from soothing ginseng tea ($2) to highly alcoholic Korean soju ($12). Draft beer includes Gordon Biersch Maarzen and Kirin ($5). Bottled (in $4 and $6 sizes), you can choose from Korea (OB and Hite), China (Tsing Tao), Japan (Asahi and Sapporo) and America (Anchor Steam and Sierra Pale Ale). Happy hour discounts apply.
An offshoot of Hahn's Hibachi on Ramona Street for nine years, Han Korean Bistro is no longer related to that mini-chain.
It is comfortable, clean and pleasant. The usual University Avenue floor-to-ceiling glass doors open onto mustard- and ketchup-colored walls with tastefully mounted photographs of Buddhas and temple grounds.
As should be in a bistro, you are greeted, thanked and bid good-bye by someone who honestly seems to care.
452 University Ave., Palo Alto. (650) 323-2555
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday