Norwitz Notions

Norwitz Notions random header image

Han Il Kwan (Korean, San Francisco)

December 18th, 2007 · by Cyndi · 1 Comment

(This review was written October 12, 2007)

We had an appointment in San Francisco last Wednesday and got together with friends at a Korean restaurant I’d read good things about on the net. It did not disappoint.

Han Il Kwan
1802 Balboa Street, San Francisco, CA 94118
(Outer Richmond neighborhood)
(415) 752-4447

Review & Menu

Our party consisted of me (no eggs, dairy, gluten (some soy sauce ok), oranges, or meat), my husband (no pork, prefers no dairy or red meat), my 2.5 year old daughter (same restrictions as me plus no chocolate), a friend from Canada (celiac–no traces of gluten, no traces of dairy or egg, nothing spicy), her husband (no restrictions), and a local friend (no scallops).

Korean food is a bit more complicated than other cuisines for groups likeours. If we all ate the same things, it wouldn’t be a problem, but with several folks unable to tolerate even trace amounts of certain foods, sharing bowls and cooking space was difficult, but we made it work.

Han Il Kwan follows the Korean tradition of cooking at your table, on a grill mounted in the middle. Some Korean places also have hot pots, others have staff cook your food in front of you, and then there are many that don’t do tableside cooking at all. You order the meat or fish of your choice and then you get soup and about a dozen different side dishes, which vary. You don’t order these extras, you simply get what they have, and you can have refills as needed.

Since we arrived early (before 6pm) we were the only customers in the restaurant. Oddly though, the staff treated us like the restaurant was doing a good business. Not like it was full and busy, but certainly not the attentiveness you’d except being the sole table. As the restaurant filled up (including a Korean tour bus that parked out front and sent a couple dozen people to the back room), the service levels didn’t change at all.

The staff was accommodating, with moderate English, and worked with us to keep the allergic among us safe. They did a good job and the meal came off well.

When my friend with celiac phoned them earlier in the day, they said the only meat that was premarinated was the beef. But it turned out that all the meat and fish was marinated. The basic one was soy sauce and sugar. It wasn’t clear if there were others but the waitress confirmed that all of them had soy sauce (which has wheat in it). Fortunately, it wasn’t a problem to get some of our dishes without the marinade.

We ordered Bul Go Gi (“tender BBQ beef marinates in house special sauce” $17.95), BBQ chicken minus the marinade ($15.95), Seafood mix (“grilled octopus, squid, scallops, prawn with special sauce”; we got oysters instead of scallops; they were marinated separately, $16.95), Broiled marinated mackerel (no marinade), and a large container of soup (hot pot). The soup on the menu was $7.95 but they said it came with the meal, so I’m not sure how they billed us, since we only had 4 main dishes for 5 adults. The soup is “soft bean curd, meat, & vegetable in hot sauce” or so I believe. They made ours with no meat or soy sauce and it contained about 10 small bowls worth.

The fish was cooked in the kitchen but the beef, chicken, and seafood mix were served raw, to be cooked on the gas grill in the middle of our table. Lifting out the cover reduced our usable eating space to very little and it was quite crowded, even though the booth easily sat 6. The grill’s cooking space was perhaps 14″x14″ and each dish was large enough to cover the grill twice.

I can imagine how this is supposed to work, with a table sharing everything. You put a little of each dish on the grill and serve it immediately when it is cooked. Each person gets a couple bites of each dish and, by the time they are finished, the next batch is ready. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that luxury. We had to cook the chicken first, so as not to contaminate the grill with marinade, then all the seafood, then the beef. The grill isn’t particularly hot and the food cooks slowly. I didn’t time it but I would guess a half hour passed between starting the chicken and finishing grilling the beef. The grill had many holes in it but was not mesh. There was no visible oil or grease used. It appeared to be either cast iron or cast aluminum.

We weren’t hungry while waiting though. Not only did we have the soup, but we had side dishes. A good dozen or so of them. The staff helpfully pointed out which ones contained forbidden ingredients. There were some pancakes with pork and egg (and probably wheat but we didn’t bother to ask since non of the gluten-free folks ate egg) but no other meat or egg. Four of the dishes had soy sauce in them, so we kept them all together and we instituted a “clean chopsticks” rule where we took some extra chopsticks and kept them with the no-soy sauce dishes for putting more on our plates.

Soy sauce dishes: There was a fish dish that must have been a paste molded into a block, then sliced. Some crunchy dried anchovies. A cubic rectangle of something that was a cross between jello and soft tofu and was quite good. And a root vegetable.

I can’t remember all the non-soy sauce side dishes but they included 2 kinds of pickled radish. One thick strips of daikon and the other was cubes which the staff said was radish but not daikon. These were my favorites, but I’m a sucker for radish. There was a basic kim chee, pickled bean sprouts, pickled cucumber, and a couple others. Nothing was spicy, though occasionally one of us would get a burst of hotness from the pieces of chili that flavored many of the dishes. Even the simple dishes were full of flavor. Either from the very fresh vegetables or from the sauces, mostly vinegar and tomato. I loved them all (tried all but the pancake).

There was a plate of lettuce but it was too bulky and a bit wet. I love lettuce wraps but the flavors of the other foods were subtle enough that the lettuce just diluted it. The beef dish came with a paste which I didn’t try. And each of us got a bowl of white sticky rice (which went very well with the side dish juices).

I just drank water, which was hard to get and in small glasses. Two of the adults shared Korean beer ($6 for a bottle easily the size of 2 regular beers) and one had a sake, served very hot. I tasted the sake and it was amazing. Smooth. I’m fairly clueless about sake but even I could tell this was worlds beyond what I’ve had before. It was nice at room temperature too, but much better when hot.

For dessert, they brought us bowls of sweetened rice water, which was nice. I thought I saw cookies going to another table, so they may have changed it to accommodate our allergies, which was thoughtful of them.

When I looked up reviews of the various Korean restaurants in San Francisco, the ones with tableside cooking got bad reviews for air quality. This one got raves. There are large vent fans over each table and they are very effective. I barely smelled a thing besides the food. The fans were quiet too…I’m not even sure ours was on.

I was quite pleasantly surprised at the ease at which we negotiated the allergy situation. Had the entire group chosen to share all the foods, it would have been even easier. Eggs are used a lot in Korean food, but we only encountered one dish with it (they may have held some back). The only wheat seemed to be in the soy sauce (and maybe the pancake…there were some noodle dishes too but I don’t know which kind). There was no dairy anywhere as far as I could tell. I believe the only soy was in the tofu
and soy sauce.

We all had a great time. They didn’t mind that we stayed for quite some time chatting. And the overall cost was pretty reasonable considering what you get.

I would definitely return if I had the chance.

Although the restaurant had a variety of foods, I’m tagging it for lowcarb (easy to avoid the rice) and for the various allergens we didn’t have trouble navigating). If this were a full list, I’d add in the meats, but it’s not, so I won’t. 🙂 A vegetarian could eat there (and would enjoy many of the side dishes and the soup) but I can’t guarentee the vegetable dishes were in fact 100% vegetarian and that’s not the focus of the restaurant.


Categories: Food · Restaurant Reviews · SF Bay Area Restaurant
Tags: · , , , , , , ,

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Turnip Pickles | Norwitz Notions // Feb 7, 2008 at 12:51 am

    […] was inspired by a trip to Han Il Kwan, a Korean restaurant in San Francisco. They had a huge spread of fermented dishes, including […]

Leave a Comment