There are two ways you can look at the experience of dining at Hoban Korean BBQ in Uptown. You can see it as an impersonal and expensive way to enjoy the Korean food you might easily find at a smaller joint. Or you can approach it as an adventure in novelty, best embarked on with a group of (rowdy) friends who are willing to split the bill.
Hoban Korean Cuisine has been a fixture in Eagan for more than 15 years. But early this March, the restaurant opened a second location in Uptown, this time focusing on a do-it-yourself barbecue experience. According to Hoban staff, it’s the only Korean barbecue of its kind in Minnesota. The experience is sort of like hibachi, except that you cook your own food, and likely without any of the grace and seduction a true chef would employ. So, yeah, it’s nothing like a hibachi restaurant.
Regardless, the concept of tableside barbecue is admittedly cool, and it drew a large crowd of hungry patrons on a recent Friday night. After a short wait, we were seated at a booth with its own silver barbecue grate in the center and a commercial exhaust hood shining directly above it. After recovering from a bit of sticker shock, we ordered marinated 3-bone beef short ribs ($22) and pork belly ($18) to barbecue ourselves, and then dug into some shrimp tempura while we waited ($9).
The tempura turned out to be a killer value: six giant shrimp, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, and onions arrived perfectly sweet and delicately crunchy. It made a filling starter for two and primed our palates for more.
The short ribs and pork belly arrived on a silver platter arranged with loads of raw onions, mushrooms, squash, and broccoli to toss on the fire. Once we flagged down a busy staff member, he happily demonstrated how to sear the meat, portion it using a pair of scissors, and maybe even make a cute little lettuce wrap with the accompanying bowl of leafy romaine.
Turns out, crisping up big slabs of beef and pork on a hot grate while simultaneously trying to consume them requires a lot of grace or a lot of humor. So if you’re hitting up Hoban on a hangry stomach, this part could get frustrating. But after we burned a few things and laughed it off, we realized that the short ribs were excellent. Pleasantly fatty and soaked through with soy sweetness, they had us bent over and gnawing at the bones until they were clean.
More disappointing was the pork belly, which never properly rendered into that crispy, caramelized stuff that puts bacon, its thinner, smoked cousin, to shame. Instead, it was pale, rubbery, and tough. We suspect that the belly wasn’t cured beforehand, making it a lot harder to tenderize with heat.
Besides barbecue, we made sure to try Hoban’s dolsot bibimbap, the classic Korean rice dish served in a sizzling-hot stone bowl (check out our roundup of dolsot bibimbap here). At $16, it’s one of the pricier versions we’ve seen in Minneapolis / St. Paul, and it had no particular flourishes. Its bulgogi (marinated beef) was well seasoned and the fried egg dutifully dripped a runny golden yolk, but we missed the ultra-important pepper sauce that usually accompanies bibimbap. Most of the banchan (small dishes of marinated and pickled vegetables to add to your rice) also lacked the bite and crunch of the best pickles and freshest vegetables, although we did enjoy the funny scoop of mashed potatoes studded with chunks of apple.
Hoban’s interior has a nightclub’s flat austerity, and its staff members scurry around with secret-service earpieces and places to go. Our server made his first appearance almost ten minutes after we took our seats. But overall, if you can flag someone down, the Hoban staff are knowledgeable and seem excited to be serving Korean cuisine.
One guy in particular, who we heard referred to as the Hype Man, made the rounds to each table, pumping people up and extolling the joys of this, the only Korean BBQ joint in Minnesota. And truly, if you’re looking for an energetic, interactive meal that also tastes pretty good, Hoban Korean BBQ would make an impressive date or group outing with old friends on a late night.
Hoban Korean BBQ
Korean barbecue in Uptown Minneapolis
2939 Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55408
Tues-Sun 4 p.m.-2 a.m. (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.)
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $13-$28
NOISE LEVEL: High
PARKING: Street parking