New Korean Barbecue Spot Heats Up East Brunswick

On this weekend night, there’s a buzz at 4-month-old Hanok Tofu House. The crowd, largely Korean, comes for the wide-ranging Korean menu and, judging by the steaming bowls that continually pass by, the signature tofu soup.

The restaurant occupies a modest storefront in a shopping center in East Brunswick

Once home to Manu, half of this two-part space has regular dining tables. The other is outfitted with low-slung, sunken tables topped with burners (left behind by the previous tenants) for Korean barbecue. The burners are not in use these days, as all the cooking at this BYO is done in the out-of-sight kitchen, from the bibambop—the layered rice dish served in a hot, stone bowl—to the classic bulgogi, a.k.a. Korean barbecue.

Bibambop with seafood

Bibambop with seafood

New proprietor Eric Lee, who does everything from opening wine, offering menu suggestions and giving diners his cell phone number in case they have questions any time of day, admits he’s just settling in. There will be new menu items this month, he says, he’s open to serving forth what diners want.

I want the tofu soup with seafood every day of my life. Hanok’s is chunky with soft, creamy tofu set off by a near-gluttonous amount of shellfish—shrimp, oysters, mussels and clams, every single one moist—and topped, at table, with a raw egg cracked open by our server. The egg quickly poaches in the chili-infused broth, making for a soup that’s both dashing and delicious.

Seafood tofu soup

Seafood tofu soup

A traditional pajeon, strewn with shredded, fermented vegetables, is a classic take on the Korean pancake. We dabble in small bowls of kimchi (cabbage, cucumber, marinated egg and a root vegetable that’s a kind of flavor cross between a radish and a potato) as we eat the pajeon.

Pajeon

Pajeon

There’s more terrific tofu in a pork and kimchi dish, another new favorite. Pork tenderloin is sliced, pan-fried and tossed with sturdy tofu and slices of cabbage popping with chilies.

Pork with kimchi tofu

Pork with kimchi tofu

The tofu tames the heat, however, bringing balance to the dish. I wasn’t quite as keen on the basic bulgogi, which had strips of beef piled high in a bland broth that lacked character. And the beef was inexplicably dry. Better was the chicken done Korean-barbecue style, with a flourish of cubed sweet potatoes, cabbage and rice cakes, all marinated in a vibrant, red-pepper paste.

I have to admit that I did miss the pomp surrounding the traditional cooking of the bibambop; it’s usually done in a stone bowl over a tabletop burner. Though Hanok’s seafood-strong rendition is lovely, with shrimp and squid dominating the rice, sprouts, slivers of pepper and carrots, without the crackly crunch of the rice at the bottom of the bowl it’s like eating mac-and-cheese without a crust on top. But Hanok’s was tasty and those fishes, again, were spot-on tender.

Hanok, with its homey fare and hospitable service, is capable of serving a diverse crowd. Beginners need not fear levels of heat that burst the Scoville scale, and veterans in search of authentic, will find it in Hanok’s signature and reliable tofu dishes.

Hanok Tofu House, 415 Route 18 in East Brunswick; 732-254-1840. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

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