Contrary to its name, Hanki Everyday Korean is not something you see every day. It's nothing like any restaurant I've seen before, at least in Orange County. There's a branch of it in Brooklyn, New York, tucked between a falafel stand and a hot chocolate joint. In a lot of ways, the Hanki in Huntington Beach is just like that one in Brooklyn, as it's located beneath apartments in one of those newfangled mixed-use developments that aim to make Orange County a little more like New York.
But the concept itself is harder to classify. I'm not exactly sure where it fits in the spectrum. The presence of bulgogi and dak galbi-topped hot dogs might suggest it's a fusion fast casual or even a fast-food joint. But it's neither of those. Everything, even the hot dog, is prepared to order on stoves in sizzling pans, taking several minutes to cook.
Yet Hanki is not like the mom-and-pops found in Garden Grove's Korean District either. You pay up front on a touch-screen tablet. Also different is the constant rotation of female K-pop music videos projected on the wall. About three songs cycled through as I waited for my food. Or at least I think it was three songs. Since the videos look and sound the same, I'm not positive if I watched three separate segments or just one long one with costume changes in between. For sure, it's always a girl group, all doe-eyed and gyrating sensually in barely there outfits that make Britney Spears' schoolgirl phase look innocent and quaint.
I point this out because it's in sharp contrast to the trio of men who work behind the counter. One of them appeared to be a curmudgeonly grandfather. The restaurant seems a family-run affair despite the slick corporate logo and interior design. And as soon as I ordered, everyone went into action. The older gentleman took a container of batter out from the fridge and proceeded to ladle it into a frying pan equipped with three circular molds not unlike the kind McDonald's employs for its fried eggs. Moments later, the pancakes were delivered to my table by the youngest member of the family.
Thin as latkes, they were as bright orange as prison jump suits, but with the edges browned to a crisp. As I tore into them, I found the interiors still hot, tender and latticed together by a patchwork of chopped kimchi and veins of scallions. A soy-based dipping sauce came on the side, but it wasn't there to add flavor; rather, it was to temper the spiciness and tartness of the pancakes. These are kimchijeon, after all, and they taste best when the kimchi used is at its ripest.
The pancakes were from a section of the menu that, for some reason, is dubbed "Quick Eats." This distinguishes the rice bowls from the Hanki Set list, which is a roster of bento-like meals. All the proteins that appear both in the Hanki Sets and Quick Eats menu are cooked the same way: in a hot pan. Only after I ordered did the raw bulgogi, spicy pork and spicy chicken get tossed in a deep-bottomed skillet over fire. And since the kitchen is directly behind the cash register and open to the dining room, it filled the restaurant with the same familiar and intoxicating smells of a traditional Korean barbecue.
As I sat there, taking in the aromas, listening to my miso pork hiss in the pan, I began to salivate. This, I thought, was refreshing. Finally, here's a contemporary Korean joint that's obviously trying to appeal to millennials but doesn't resort to the panacea of the Chipotle assembly line.
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This isn't to say that what it serves doesn't look new and modern. The Hanki Set came neatly organized in a special ceramic plate with three compartments: one for the rice (either multigrain or regular white molded into a cylinder), one for the meat, and one for an array of four vegetable panchan side dishes. It was a complete Korean meal with everything I needed and nothing I didn't. The miso pork, in particular, was wonderful—juicy, soft, cauterized to a caramel-like burnish, glazed in a marinade that's faintly tangy and alcoholic.
I might have liked the "Festival Noodles" if only the tepid anchovy-based broth was hotter and tasted less like weak tea. Instead, I slurped the big bowl of wheat noodles topped with ground beef, omelet ribbons and carrots while watching those dancing girls strut and swivel their hips. It was probably the sixth video I saw, but I could've sworn it was the same one that was playing when I arrived.
Hanki Everyday Korean, 7451 Edinger Ave., Bldg 1B, Ste. 102, Huntington Beach, (714) 622-4073; hankica.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-9 p.m.; Sat., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Hanki Sets, $10.75-$13.50; Quick Eats, $6.50-$11.50. No alcohol.