1989 Silver Bell Rd., Eagan
JANUARY, THE MONTH of hangovers and introspection, is never incredibly kind to anyone; triumphs this time of year tend to be modest ones. It seems fitting, then, that the event giving me the most pleasure this month was the consumption of a noodle I'd never before encountered. Not that the experience was anything to belittle. The noodle I speak of was very special indeed--oval-shaped, 2 inches top to toe, chewy as bubble gum and smooth as wet glass. And where did I stumble across this little bit of paradise? In a noodle shop, an Italian pasta bar?
No. It was discovered at the bottom of a casserole dish bubbling over with kimchi, mushrooms, pork, and tofu, served to me at my new favorite cheap thrill restaurant, Hoban. Juxta-posed with the spicy and stern taste of kimchi, the friendly and comforting noodle caused me to laugh. When I explained to my friend what it was that I was laughing over, plucking one out of my bowl to show him, he pointed out that I have always had a terrible sense of humor.
In any case, it's hard to visit Hoban without finding something new and unexpected there. You have to appreciate the introduction to the menu, which states, "One might say, 'Eat Korean food as much as you like and you will still lose weight.'" You'll desperately want to believe this because your table will eventually be littered with more food than you could ever hope to finish. Even the smallest of orders is accompanied by myriad side dishes, usually including small bowls of kimchi, pickled radishes, bean sprouts, pickled lettuce, cucumbers doused with red pepper, and potatoes sautéed in sesame oil, soy sauce, and sugar, served cold.
Of course, since you'll be losing weight no matter how much you eat, you may be persuaded to order appetizers, our favorite of which was "spicy wing" ($3.95). Don't be deceived, though--the singular "wing" belies the mountain of plump chicken wings you'll be facing, all smeared in a thick bath of sticky, sweet, and peppery hot sauce, and then tossed with chives. Man doo ($3.50) ran a close second, fried finger-sized dumplings stuffed with vegetables and seasoned ground beef; a bit greasy perhaps, but quite lovely soaked in the sesame-drenched soy sauce. The bean pancake, bin dae tuk, stuck with leeks, carrots, and chives ($3.50), was the slowest to disappear from the table, tasting quite heavy and oily in comparison to the other appetizers.
Main dishes take several shapes: hot pot casseroles, meals built for two ($22.95-$23.95); noodle dishes ($7.95-$9.50); hot casseroles ($7.95-$8.95); "popular Korean dishes," frequently involving marinated, sliced raw fish or seasoned raw beef ($7.95-$12.95); stir-fried dishes ($7.95-$12.50); and barbecued fare ($8.95-$12.95). My friend went nuts over his mammoth portion of chicken bul go ki, tender pieces of chicken barbecued with a light teriyaki sauce ($8.95) and served with stir-fried vegetables and steamed sticky rice. More dramatic are the various hot casseroles, which arrive from the kitchen boiling and bubbling.
Aside from the kimchi chigae (the dish I liked for its noodle content and heady spices, priced at $8.50), there's also al chigae ($8.95); fresh cod egg and vegetable casserole ($8.95); squid casserole ($8.50); and kalbee tang, beef spare rib in clear beef broth ($8.95). One friend of mine was perfectly delighted with his cham pong ($7.95), a sea of sautéed seafood, including baby shrimp, real and imitation crab, squid, and scallops in a hot pepper broth with rice noodles--until he tasted his kimchi and decided that the soup paled in comparison.
If you're looking to be delighted with atmosphere and decor, you may find the plain brown paneling and carpeting a bit lacking, even with the aid of an occasional handful of tinsel and silver balls. (And as long as we're poking around the negatives, coffee is served with powdered cream packets and there is no dessert menu to speak of.) But the service is good and the kitchen incredibly quick. So don't let January get to you; if this great find isn't enough to lift your spirits, you'll find that Hoban is right next door to a karaoke studio and a dance studio/charm school. Between the three, there's bound to be something new for you.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.