So why now? Han Ly Hwang, chef-owner of the enormously popular Kim Jong Grillin' food cart, alludes to some high-profile chefs who have paved the way: "There are a lot more Korean celebrity chefs that are doing amazing things with food and bringing Korean culture to the mainstream: Roy Choi, David Chang, Chris Oh, Edward Lee, Hooni Kim, Deuki Hong."
Kimchi is a gateway drug to Korean food.
Another piece in the wide-scale popularization of Korean flavors? Portland chefs have comfortably laced things like kimchi and gochujang into Western menus. If there were ever a Korean food gateway drug, kimchi would be it. Just look at the Korean Twist food cart, Koi Fusion, and Cameo Cafe's menus for many examples: kimchi tacos, kimchi quesadillas, kimchi hot dogs, kimchi cheesesteak, kimchi hash, kimchi omelette, etc.
"I have seen Korean-Hawaiian, Korean-Mexican, Korean-Italian, Korean-American, Korean-Japanese, and Korean-Chinese in Portland. I'm sure you can mix it with anything you wanted," says Irene Lee of Korean Twist food cart (SW 10th and Alder).
Non-Korean restaurants in Portland are showing their love to the trending cuisine on their menus, too. See John Gorham's Bim Bop Bacon & Eggs and Korean fried chicken at eclectic brunch spot, Tasty n Alder, and Rick Gencarelli's Korean pork shoulder with house kimchi at Lardo, the reputed sandwich shop known for drawing inspiration from cuisines around the world world.
While these chefs are using non-traditional foods and concepts as the launchpad for Korean flavors, there's plenty of real-deal Korean food to be found in Portland, too. Case in point: Peter Cho's hipper than hip — and elusively hidden — Han Oak.
A recently opened garage-style kitchen near the Ocean complex on NE 24th and Glisan, Han Oak has a sweet grassy courtyard with vintage furniture for hanging before or after your meal. Importantly, it's also a residence where Cho, his wife, and son live.
"Traditionally, many people are exposed to another culture's cuisine by being invited into a friend's home and tasting their country's or their parent's food. We want you to feel like you're trying authentic Korean food for the first time in our home," says Cho.
Han Oak's Peter Cho shares his traditional, authentic Korean dishes in his own home.
You can also find true-blue Korean flavor in the duk bo ki (soft rice and fish cake with sweet chili and gochujang) dished out at K-Town Korean BBQ; the bibimbap (mixed rice and meat with assorted veggies) at Bibi2go; and the soondae (Korean blood cake) at JCD Korean Restaurant in Beaverton.
There's also a slight possibility that the hottest thing to hit the Portland Korean food scene hasn't even happened yet. Enter Revelry, a late-night cocktail and DJ influenced restaurant with playful Korean "snacks" from James Beard-nominated chefs Rachel Yang (Joule, Trove, and Revel) and Seif Chirchi. After a bunch of anticipation, it'll open to the public on Tuesday, August 16. If you haven't already, it's probably time to get up close and smell the kimchi.