For years, Han Oak has been celebrated by local critics and international tourists alike for its modern take on Korean food — mandu under a crispy lace, fried chicken wings in a instant-ramen-packet-style dry spice, galbi jjim with smoked-and-cured short rib — which has been showcased everywhere from David Chang’s Ugly Delicious to the New York Times. But the space is more than just a restaurant: It was a home. Behind a small door near the bathroom, owners Peter Cho and Sun Young Park lived in a small apartment where they raised their two children, Frankie and Elliot. Cho could be frequently be seen laughing with diners at one of the communal tables, a kid over his shoulder, or dropping a scrambling toddler with Park on his way back into the kitchen. Lawn chairs and toys were strewn across the restaurant’s courtyard in equal measure, like at a backyard cookout. On many nights, it felt less like a restaurant than a never-ending dinner party.
In March, the party was cut short: Restaurants across Oregon shuttered, bracing for the impact of COVID-19. At first, Cho and Park planned to do takeout, like many restaurateurs trying to muddle through the crisis. But as the pandemic pressed on, the couple felt more and more nervous about being in contact with anyone: The idea of crossing paths with a customer — even for takeout — and passing the virus on to a family member seemed too risky. On March 16, they decided to shut down and evaluate what might come next.
Portland is now potentially weeks away from reopening, but Cho and Park still aren’t ready to welcome the public back into their home — in fact, it may be a year or longer before Han Oak reopens completely. The couple plans to keep the restaurant closed for dine-in service until a vaccine for COVID-19 is readily available. “I don’t want a ton of people to come to the restaurant,” Park says. “Realistically, they’re putting themselves at risk to support us. I don’t feel comfortable with that.”
Three months ago, Cho and Park’s year was shaping up very differently: They had just nabbed a good chunk of screen time in the Season 2 premiere of Ugly Delicious, and it seemed like the ideal moment to open a second restaurant. Planning to open a snack bar-style restaurant steps away from Han Oak and to start serving food daily — a dramatic uptick from their long-running four-nights-a-week schedule — they took over the lease next door, previously home to the recently vacated Sudra.
In the biggest change of all, the couple decided to move out of Han Oak, closing on a house. Their success in recent years filled the restaurant on most nights with visitors from across the globe photographing dumplings and maneuvering around servers, so they began to crave more privacy. Just one week before the restaurant closed, the family signed on a house, and they began moving out in early March. As the pandemic swept across the country, the prospect of being open as a restaurant — even if they weren’t living in the space — was not particularly tempting. “That last weekend before the shutdown, I didn’t want to be open,” Cho remembers. “We just tend to have a lot more food tourists who come to our restaurant, and the thought of having so many people and so much exposure… My mom is going through her cancer treatment, as a family we still need to see each other. So to put myself at risk and not spend any time with family would be really tough, you know?”
The house feels empty: The bedrooms still only contain beds, while the living room is without a couch. Instead of shopping for furniture or settling in, they’ve been ordering groceries for the restaurant’s “staff pantry,” where employees pick up food at the restaurant to take home. They’ve spent time roasting and grilling trays of rib-eyes and chicken thighs for Urban Gleaners, which the organization distributes to food pantries around the city, and individually for their own causes. Park has been distributing N95 masks to local hospitals and restaurant workers, which her father, a Los Angeles-based importer, has been shipping to her. Otherwise, they’ve been cooking together, and homeschooling Frankie and Elliot.
Park is fixated on the possibility of contamination, feeling like every interaction with someone outside the family a stressor. “I hold my breath every time it’s time to pick up meal kits,” she says. “I ask myself, ‘What’s Peter going to bring home? Who did we walk past?’”
Last month, Park’s grandmother died of COVID-19. She, and many of her relatives across the country, attended the funeral over Zoom, unable to go in person. “It’s so hard; it feels hopeless,” she says. “The ups and downs are really high and really low. I know why we stay at home now.”
Han Oak is still closed, but Cho and Park know that staying completely isolated isn’t sustainable. Working for Urban Gleaners and looking at chefs from restaurants like Toro Bravo and Revelry cooking for homeless shelters, they see a potential step forward. “Just in general, at least for the rest of the year, we’re in nonprofit survival mode,” Cho says, and his business partner and wife agrees.
“This is a time when the community stands up for itself,” says Park. “I see it happening, I see the donations to other establishments, feeding homeless shelters. That’s where it matters, that’s where we should build as much strength as possible… I saw a line at the homeless shelter, and Oh my God, the line is out the door.”
The couple does wants to resume serving food to their regular customers — just not in the restaurant. Over the next few weeks, they’re strategizing the safest way to start cooking for the public again, hoping to start some sort of “Han Oak at Home” takeout operation by mid-June.
Although Han Oak is known for creative, non-traditional Korean food, Cho sees himself making some of the dishes he’s avoided in the past: He’s considering packaging up pre-marinated bulgogi to grill at home, depending on what the health department says. He’s picturing grab-and-go kimbap, budae jjigae kis. “I can’t imagine people are interested in cheffy stuff,” he says, but he’s still undecided. The stakes are higher right now, and Cho doesn’t want to take any major risks. “We can’t afford to do that. We have to launch it so we sell out completely.”
Whenever the restaurant does fully reopen, it probably won’t look like it did before all of this happened, with Cho and Park wandering through crowded, communal tables with little kids crawling on their backs. They remember the early days, when they only served food two nights a week to 100 people. They’re considering giving up their bar and liquor service, cutting out the costs of restocking the bar, and opening up the courtyard, setting aside the dining room for a more spacious prep area. By waiting until they have a vaccine, the couple hopes dining out will feel somewhat closer to how it felt before the pandemic. “Every part of this is so traumatic,” Cho says. “Our job is to welcome people in. There’s nothing more than, ‘Please come in and enjoy your experience.’ To add any other hurdles? That’s hard.”
The couple is still not totally sure when the restaurant will reopen, and they’re considering that something else will make them feel safe enough to keep going. Still, their staff doesn’t feel ready to come back anytime soon, and neither do they. “I want to be 200 percent, 1,000 percent secure with our protocols,” Park says. “It’s week by week. It’s the blind leading the blind.”
• Han Oak [Official]
• A Secret Ingredient Makes This Chef’s Galbijjim Perfect. Just Don’t Tell Mom. [NYT]
• Han Oak is a Korean sensation found inside the chef’s Northeast Portland home [Oregonian]
• The Owners of Toro Bravo Are Making Meals for the Homeless Shelter at the Oregon Convention Center [Willamette Week]