In Search of Seolleongtang at Han Bat
Once inside Han Bat, and if I turned my back on the Lawrence Avenue-facing windows, I felt like I was back in Korea. A Korean TV soap chattered in the background; an elderly man lounged over the Hanguk Ilbo newspaper; and tiny cups of warmed barley tea were brought straight over to the table.
Atop the unassuming yellow-bricked exterior, a sign advertises the oxbone soup known as seolleongtang. In genuine Korean style, that one dish is the main focus of the entire restaurant.
So let's get that straight, first: no bibimbap, no bulgogi. There are a few plates of beef cuts you can get in addition to the seolleong tang, but this simple, comforting oxbone stock swimming with meat bits and noodles is what you come for.
The only choices you face have to do with add-ins. First, cow parts. There is brisket, flank, tendon, and honeycomb tripe, among others. I went with the brisket or yangji tang ($7.26).
Now for the noodles. "Korean or udon?" the server asked, in a helpful simplification for my dining companions and I, the only non-Koreans in the lot during a crowded weeknight dinner hour. "Korean" means glass noodles, and they are the better choice. You'll see plenty of people going with the heftier wheat udon, but I think, at least for the yangji tang, the thicker noodles would overwhelm the whisper-thin slices of brisket. Delicate, nearly transparent glass noodles shared space on the chopsticks nicely.
Served up in a big heavy bowl, the beef and noodles swam in a bland, milky broth. That broth is the classic feature of seolleongtang; its white color and silky mouthfeel come from simmered marrow bones, traditionally those of an ox. It's definitely the kind of food you crave when you're feeling under the weather.
I also tried the yakbap ($7.26), the spicy beef and vegetable soup, which was, despite its fiery color, also comfortingly simple and had only the faintest touch of heat (plus root vegetables, bean sprouts, and the occasional mushroom).
This is one of those very rare instances you'll find salt on a Korean restaurant table—use it, liberally. Additional spice in the form of gochujang is also available. A heap of chopped green onions is provided for scattering atop, adding more as you work your way down into the bowl.
Korean meals are composed of different dishes that encapsulate, alone, extreme ends of the texture and flavor scales, but when eaten in alternating bites make a harmonious balance. So to get the full range, I went straight from the bland, meaty noodles and broth to Han Bat's deliciously sour kimchi, which comes in two types, the usual cabbage and, my favorite, crunchy squares of radish, called kkakduki. Then a mouthful of rice to tame the fermented heat of the kimchi, and back to the soup again. Repeat.
2723 West Lawrence Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625 (map)