Han Ly Hwang of Kim Jong Grillin’ dishes on his favorite restaurants in Portland

Han Ly Hwang of Kim Jong Grillin' in Portland, Ore.
Han Ly Hwang of Kim Jong Grillin' in Portland, Ore.

Hometown: Fairfax, Virginia
Occupation: Chef and Owner, Kim Jong Grillin’
Years worked as a chef: About 16
Years lived in Portland: 11
Awards: Finalist, Chopped (2014, 2015)
Judge’s Choice Carty Award, Eat Mobile Festival (2011)

Go to Chef Hwang’s shortlist

What do you love best about Portland’s food scene?

Forever changing. And overall, the average Portlander can’t be fooled with what you serve them. You have to be on your toes around these parts! There are foodies, and then there are Portland foodies. I have literally been asked where every single ingredient is sourced from.

If you had to name one personal favorite dish from Kim Jong Grillin’, which would it be and why? 

The bibim box with short ribs. To me, this is one of the best things I have ever made. It is a lot of food and very memorable.

Describe the Korean food scene in Portland. Have there been any restaurants that impressed you?

I don’t really see Koreans in Portland, period. There are restaurants, but I never go out for Korean food. Seriously, there’s me and a handful of Koreans in Portland and we all know each other.

Name the top restaurants that you think every visitor in Portland should try. 

Ha & VL: This family has two different soups that rotate daily and they are all amazing. Plus, the place is nationally recognized but they still only have one location.

Chicken Coop: Best fried chicken in Portland. Handmade everything.

Yoko’s Sushi: This is one of the best sushi places in town and they are totally kid-friendly. This is my favorite place to take the family.

Apizza Scholls: Best pizza on the West Coast. I am basing this opinion on the whole experience of the pizza shop – from the old-school arcade to the chewable ice – and the service is great, too.

Describe your perfect “dining out day” in Portland.

I don’t really know how to answer this question. It has been a long time since I have been out. Food truck + 3-year-old = no social life. I guess I could list it out:
Breakfast pizza at home. Binh Minh banh mi for lunch. Nap. Blaze up and get hungry. Go to Laurelhurst Market for dinner to see my buddy Patrick McKee make art on the plate. Rum Club for drinks. Cab it home.

What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out at?

I don’t really have one. It’s all delicious!

What other cuisines do you enjoy eating or cooking?

I love Italian food and cooking Italian food. Vietnamese food is definitely one of my faves.

Any great watering holes you like to visit often?

I kind of retired from drinking. But I can’t divulge that info anyway. You just have to come drink with me.

Since it’s Portland, we have to ask: what’s your favorite food truck (besides your own)?

The Chicken Coop. We trade bibim boxes for fried chicken all the time. They are also a swell bunch of guys.

Since Eats Abroad is geared toward travelers, are there any restaurants or bars at Portland’s airport or hotels you would recommend?

Departure rules. It’s Gregory Gourdet’s restaurant. That’s downtown and is in the same building as the Nines Hotel.

What’s your guilty pleasure and where in Portland do you go to get it? 

Báhn xèo from Pho Hùng. It’s just a great dish. Savory crepe wrapped in lettuce. I love it.

What’s one dish that blew you away and left you wishing you came up with the recipe yourself?

I don’t really have one. I am just happy that the plate or food item exists. I think sometimes when I am in a situation where something is sooo damn good, I tend to want to celebrate it more rather than wonder why I didn’t do it.

Are there any foods native to Portland that you particularly like and that visitors should try to find?

I have no idea. There are just so many great places to get food in Portland. There are way more great places in Portland to eat than bad ones. Like you have to go out of your way to find something that sucks.

Finally, what would you say is the one thing any visitor must see or do before leaving Portland? 

Go to OMSI. Come see me for short ribs!

Chef Hwang’s Shortlist:

Kim Jong Grillin’, SE 46th Avenue and SE Division Street (Richmond); Korean, lunch and dinner daily.

Ha & VL Sandwich, 2738 SE 82nd Avenue (South Tabor); Vietnamese, breakfast and lunch daily.

Chicken Coop, 4926 SE Division Street (Richmond); fried chicken, lunch and dinner Friday-Wednesday, closed Thursday.

Yoko’s Japanese Restaurant, 2878 SE Gladstone Street (Creston-Kenilworth); Japanese, dinner only daily.

Apizza Scholls, 4741 SE Hawthorne Boulevard (Hawthorne); pizza, lunch Saturday-Sunday, dinner daily.

Binh Minh Sandwiches, 7821 SE Powell Boulevard (South Tabor); Vietnamese, breakfast and lunch daily.

Laurelhurst Market, 3155 E. Burnside Street (Laurelhurst); steakhouse, dinner only daily.

Rum Club, 720 SE Sandy Boulevard (Buckman); bar, open daily.

Departure, 525 SW Morrison Street (Downtown); Asian, dinner only daily.

Pho Hùng, 4717 SE Powell Boulevard (Richmond); Vietnamese, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), 1945 SE Water Avenue (Hosford-Abernethy); open Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.


About the Chef: 2011 was a year of major ups and downs for Chef Han Ly Hwang. His cart, Kim Jong Grillin’ (a memorable name that he says came about at “4 a.m., whiskey drunk”), was proclaimed the city’s best food cart at the Eat Mobile Festival. But the night of the award ceremony, he lost his business after the truck went up in flames. Hwang’s next move was a brick and mortar restaurant, but after much planning and investing, it ultimately didn’t work out, leaving Hwang feeling defeated.

He was working as a deliverer for a specialty foods seller when he appeared on a 2014 episode of Food Network’s Chopped. Though he didn’t win, his plates impressed the judges, especially celebrity chef Scott Conant. Reminding Hwang that he can cook, Conant gave him some tough love, saying, “Get your ass back in the kitchen and get to work. You can’t give up.” Conant’s words reinvigorated Hwang, and in August 2014, Kim Jong Grillin’ made its triumphant return to the streets, offering the people of Portland Korean comfort food with big, bold flavors. Less than a year later, in June 2015, Hwang opened a second location.

“‘ALWAYS STAY HUNGRY’ IS WHAT I SAY. AMBITION, TO ME, IS THE HARDEST STOMACH TO FILL.”

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