No Can Do on Man Doo in Eagan
1989 Silver Bell Rd., Eagan; 688-3447.
I've been losing a lot of friends lately. At least a dozen in the past year, all moved to seek better lives in New York and California. They tend to blame Minneapolis pretty heavily for their leaving--a ceiling to what they can achieve with their careers here, the eight-month winter, not enough to do, the way you can't buy liquor after dinnertime. Compare the masthead here today with the masthead a year ago and you'll see I'm not exaggerating. When I go to parties nowadays everyone who's left huddles around like kids whose parents forgot to pick them up from a birthday party.
But I try not to let it get me down, and I'm on a personal campaign to make sure that I experience the Cities as richly and deeply as they can be experienced, and so I have lots of little adventures: A couple of weeks ago I found a great place in Afton where they smoke their own hams (Riverside Deli), and recently I "discovered" Flameburger, which is open 24 hours and makes great hash browns.
Wherever events are going on you'll find me there: the State Fair, Spookyworld, Dayton's Eighth Floor, Holidazzle, Winter Carnival. I float from one to the other, and always in the back of my mind is this idea: We have so much, you just have to appreciate it. So sometimes when I find a little out-of-the-way place that's doing something well, say, a Chinese place in a rundown strip mall in Little Canada, I get a little gaga. Eureka, I think. Here it is, another little star in the Twin Cities' broadly scattered constellation. This is why I live here, I'm having a great time. Generally, I believe it and I'm happy.
So you can see why I was so excited about Hoban. Korean food is one of my favorites, and there it was, in the unexplored Silver Bell strip mall, in exotic, far-off Eagan. Sounded perfect to me. If better Korean food is to be found in Flushing, Queens, than in Manhattan, and, for that matter (from what I've read) in San Francisco and not in Pyongyang, wasn't it possible that there was better Korean food in Eagan than in St. Paul? Why not?
I must admit that I felt a little down on the ride there. I was listening to MPR and there was a story about hunters who'd like to hunt wolves, since wolves have made such a strong comeback. One hunter's advocate was quoted complaining that wolves aren't paying any hunting-license fees, and they're each taking 18 to 20 deer a year. Wolves are taking unfair advantage of hunters' licensing fees. Wolves, nature's own welfare cheats. If you think about this for too long it's inevitable that you'll start to worry about all the eagles and hawks taking fish without licenses, the ducks that don't pay for their state waterway access, the foxes that don't pay for their pheasant-hunting, the raccoons that don't pay dump fees, and all nature's endless parade of beady-eyed freeloaders.
The day before, as far as I could tell, MPR had been all about manure lagoons, and specifically about whether manure pits were inferior or superior to manure lagoons, both for the environment and for the pocketbooks of our community of mass-manure producers. There's just so long that one can think about manure lagoons before you think: that is not what the word lagoon was ever meant to convey. Lagoon means an azure pool surrounded by palm trees, Gilligan, Brooke Shields, and tropical breezes. Not pig poo. I don't know why I don't just stop listening to MPR. I don't know why I don't walk around with big wads of cotton in my ears. But I don't, and maybe that contributed to how disappointed I was.
It started out with the Bin Dae Tuk ($3.50), which is supposed to be a fried mung-bean pancake threaded with scallions, sometimes meat, and always bean sprouts, chilies, and cilantro. It's usually very fresh and light and full of interesting tastes, but here it was thickly floury and very oily, and hardly had any nonbean things in it at all. Not too wonderful. The Man Doo ($3.50) were good, but I prefer these little dumplings steamed instead of deep fried, and while the best have hints of kimchi, green onions, ginger, and tofu in their little dumpling hearts, these seemed to be all meat and soft yellow onions--pretty good, but more like pierogies than Man Doo.
Korean food is usually accompanied by a spread of little pickles or strongly spicy dishes. The spread is called panjan, and the spiciest item, kimchee, is a fermented chopped-cabbage dish, loaded with red chili, garlic, ginger, and fish sauce. (Generally, you can decide if you'd like Korean food by whether a chili hot-cabbage pickle sounds interesting or horrifying to you.) The other things you'll get with your panjan, meant to be combined with your entrées to suit your personal taste, tend to vary by season and restaurant: In some places you'll get as many as two dozen dishes, but most often you'll get between six and 10. One of my favorites is a sort of potato salad, marinated cold potato cubes that are faintly sweet, smoky, and salty. Here they were mealy and sort of falling apart in their dish. The tong chimi, a water-based radish pickle, tasted tinny. Usually when you finish a dish it is refilled; at Hoban it never was. So much for the panjan.
Really basic standard dishes, like Bul Go Ki ($8.95), were underwhelming: The meat was dry, nearly cold, and served on a bed of almost raw onions. Usually it's stickily sauced and sizzling. Hot soups, served in little cast-iron cauldrons, were notable mainly for how outrageously hot they were: They're served at a full rolling boil, and remain that way, bubbling, sputtering, spitting hot steam, and splashing hot broth for three minutes or so. The seafood one I tried, the Sangsun Maeun Tang ($8.95), had a flavorful broth, but the fish chunks, big bone-laden cross sections of something silver-skinned, had the dry foamy taste I associate with freezer burn. The Hae Mul Pajun ($12.95), an egg-and-scallion pancake full of seafood, was the best thing I had there because it was freshly made and full of scallions, but honestly I've had better: The shrimp and scallops were of the teeny-tiny, rubbery, low-budget variety.
The service was friendly enough, but had a certain laissez-faire, que-sera-sera aspect to it: The staff seemed to spend most of its time in the kitchen, but on one of the periodic sweeps through the dining room, the servers would get a lot done, which seemed admirable. My second visit was equally lackluster. If I lived in Bloomington, Apple Valley, or Eagan I bet I'd go to Hoban a lot and stick to the absolutely plainest dishes, like Bi Bim Bob ($7.95), which is essentially a vegetable stir-fry. But I don't, so I won't.
My favorite thing about Hoban was the dance school next door--trophies are stacked from floor to ceiling in the picture windows, and through their small super-shiny posts you can see lots of little girls hopping around and doing backflips and handsprings. It's very charming. So here's this week's lesson: Don't let the manure lagoons get you down, for they're hand-springing in Eagan.
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