Mesa restaurant Ban Chan Korean Cuisine finds new crowd on social media | Phoenix New Times

At Ban Chan Korean Cuisine, an old favorite finds new life on social media

Irene Woo has run restaurants for 50 years. But a flurry of influencer posts have brought fresh attention to her "country homestyle" Korean food.
Mesa restaurant Ban Chan opened in 2014 but a recent burst of social media attention has brought new crowds.
Mesa restaurant Ban Chan opened in 2014 but a recent burst of social media attention has brought new crowds. Mary Berkstresser
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Anyone who follows restaurant influencers knows that they tend to move in unison. Like a school of fish. Or a flock of birds. Or a herd of stampeding rhinos.

If you’re plugged into the Phoenix food scene on social media, you’ve most likely noticed a sudden barrage of posts heralding the discovery of Ban Chan Korean Cuisine, a fantastic “hidden" gem in Mesa.

To quote the inimitable Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Ban Chan’s owner and head chef, Irene Woo, has been running Korean restaurants that have garnered press and accolades both in Arizona and elsewhere for 50 years. She’s been “discovered” multiple times over, and her food has graced the pages of The Arizona Republic and Phoenix Magazine, not to mention hundreds of posts on local food discussion sites.

The newfound attention is entirely welcome. And there’s always some ink to spare for a humble, delicious homestyle Korean joint that deserves the love. But for those who might be late to the party, perhaps we can do better than to post a few glamour shots and move on to the next hotspot du jour.

There’s a lot here to learn, and a lot to like. Including the owner herself.

click to enlarge Ban Chan owner Irene Woo.
Ban Chan’s owner and head chef, Irene Woo has been running Korean restaurants for 50 years.
Mary Berkstresser

Before K-Town was K-Town

The city of Los Angeles officially recognized Koreatown in 1982. Woo opened her first restaurant, Myeongdong, near the corner of Hobart and Olympic Boulevards in 1975, a year after moving to the U.S.

She’d immigrated from a rural part of Chungcheongbuk-do, South Korea’s only landlocked province, and she found a local audience for the food she grew up with.

“At that time, that street had only two, three restaurants,” Woo explains. “Now, there are so many there.”

In Korea, she’d studied literature and poetry and she's an accomplished, published author. But like so many others, after waiting tables to make ends meet, she fell into the restaurant industry.

Woo moved to Hawaii in 1979 and ran a series of restaurants on Oahu. After three decades, she retired to Phoenix in 2012 so she could be close to her family. Her retirement didn’t last long.

“So boring,” Woo says. “So I opened again.”

Woo launched her retirement project, Ban Chan, in 2014, and praise from Phoenix media followed.  She handed the reins over to a friend during the pandemic, but Woo recently returned to the kitchen, adding Babo Jumak next door, a laid-back karaoke and drinking lounge.

Then came the influencers.

click to enlarge Small side dishes at Ban Chan.
A simple, fresh selection of banchan is one of Irene Woo's specialties.
Dominic Armato

‘Authentic’ to what?

Anytime a great restaurant finds a new audience, that’s a win. But many of Ban Chan’s newfound evangelists favor superlatives over subtlety.

“The most authentic Korean restaurant in Arizona” shout the titles on TikTok, the kind of breathless hyperbole that aims to keep you from swiping for just a few precious seconds.

The thing is, “authentic” is a tricky chameleon of a word. It has a sneaky way of meaning whatever you want it to mean, and the implied “inauthenticity” of the alternative makes it a value judgment: This food is good. That other food isn’t.

But like any cuisine, Korean food comes in a multitude of styles. And I know an awful lot of Korean restaurateurs around town who would rightly take umbrage with the implication that their style of food is somehow less “authentic.” A nation’s cuisine isn’t frozen in time, and Woo herself plainly states that popular South Korean foods of 2024 are in many ways unfamiliar to her.

“Right now, over there is so different. I don’t know the new style. I stopped in ’74 over there,” Woo says.

What it seems influencers are trying to get at, however clumsily, is that Ban Chan embodies a particular type of Korean food. “Country homestyle” is how Woo describes it. It’s neither fancy nor showy, both straightforward and humble and ultimately focused on comforting, satisfying flavor. Ban Chan serves grandma cuisine.

click to enlarge
Ban Chan makes everyone feel at home in its cozy dining room.
Mary Berkstresser

Ban Chan feels like home

Heck, it’s printed right there in the upper lefthand corner of the menu: “Grandma’s Home Cookin’!”

When I ask around, the same phrase keeps bubbling to the surface. “This is like the food my grandma used to make.”

What’s special about Ban Chan is that it doesn’t have to be your culture for that feeling to come through.

Sit down at one of the peach melamine tabletops and lean over a giant steel bowl of duk mandu guk, a dumpling and rice cake soup. It’s too hot to eat. Korean soups always are, somehow, no matter how long you let them cool. But you dig in and scald your tongue anyway, because who can wait?

You spear a thick, chewy rice cake and slurp a sip of simple beef broth that's deep, meaty and cloudy, and it has a thick, luxurious texture that wraps around your tongue and refuses to let go. There are ribbons of scrambled egg and a whiff of garlic and scallion, but the only sharp edge comes from a heady blast of white pepper, a little punch in the nose to wake you up and keep you engaged.

As your belly warms, you get a little woozy, lost in a soup-induced reverie set to the tune of Korean power ballads playing from a cheap stereo behind the counter.

In between slurps, your chopsticks wander and seek out a nibble of the banchan splayed across the table. Woo’s banchan are some of the best in town — a collection of pickled and stewed vegetables, none of them particularly showy but all of them freshly prepared in-house, bright and flavorful.

Her baechu kimchi is tremendous. She ferments Napa cabbage for less than a week, so it plays more like a light, spicy-sour pickle and less like the deeply funky kimchi you're probably used to.

You survey the walls covered with charming, colorful portraits of Korean dishes, painted by Woo herself, and decide that some haemul pajeon sounds perfect. When the seafood and scallion pancake arrives, it isn’t the geometrically perfect circle you’ve seen around town. It’s a little rustic, a little misshapen — thick batter plopped into a pan and fried until crisp and craggy around the edges.

It's cooked a little unevenly. Hey, sometimes grandma burns the pajeon. But it still hits the spot and the love comes through.

click to enlarge Corn Cheese at Ban Chan.
The staff torches the corn cheese tableside, lending it a bit of smoky char.
Dominic Armato

Popular dishes on the menu

One reason trendy restaurant seekers may have overlooked Ban Chan for so long is that some of the more popular dishes around town aren’t always the restaurant’s best foot forward.

A rather oily soft tofu soup has a nice flavor, but I wouldn’t choose it over Phoenix’s soondubu specialists. Bibimbap doesn’t get much crisp from its hot stone bowl, and the tteokbokki might not do it for folks who prefer a more spicy-sweet gochujang intensity with their rice and fish cakes. Meanwhile, bulgogi is never quite the same when prepared in the kitchen rather than charred on the table in front of you. Someone who orders these dishes might conclude they can do better elsewhere and not return.

That would be a mistake.

The kitchen puts a nice, hard sear on slabs of galbi and pork belly, and the spicy chicken barbecue is a standout dish you don’t often see — juicy thighs are slathered with a sweet and spicy yangnyeom sauce that turns into a sticky caramelized goo on the cast iron plate. And Woo’s excellent meat jun, thinly sliced beef coated in eggy batter and pan-fried, is a standout crowd pleaser.

Corn kernels torched tableside with a mound of mozzarella cheese is an excellent rendition of the popular drinking food, and naengmyeon, thin, chewy noodles in icy cold soup, are a godsend come June. I suspect the spicy bibim naengmyeon will steal most diners’ attention, but don’t snooze on the mul naengmyeon, bathed in a frigid beef broth that you perk up to taste with vinegar and hot mustard.

Where Woo’s menu really starts to shine, though, is when you dive into the esoterica.

click to enlarge Acorn jelly at Ban Chan.
Powdered acorns are fashioned into a resilient jelly, sliced and tossed in a salad with a vinegary fermented chile dressing.
Dominic Armato

Don't miss the less popular dishes

Is anybody else in town offering acorn jelly? Perhaps, but I don’t recall seeing it.

Korean dotorimuk is made from acorns pulverized into starch and turned into a dark brown jelly that has a playful jiggle and bite. Here, it’s sliced and tossed into a salad with lettuce, scallions and pungent chrysanthemum leaves, anointed with a spicy-sweet dressing.

You can get the same treatment applied to hongeo, fermented skate fish. When it’s served in sashimi form, hongeo is an acquired taste that has it detractors, even in Korea. But here, smothered with chiles and vinegar, it offers a cleaner, more delicate kind of funk and a feisty, chewy texture that puts up a fight against anyone who enjoys gnawing it off the bone. Count me among them.

If you’re comfortable with fish bones, the kodalijjim — mistranslated on the menu as “Steamed Cod” — is a dynamite dish with wild intensity. Semi-dried pollock is braised with soy, chiles and garlic, creating a kind of robust, ruddy stew of fish with a firm texture. And less intense but no less delicious is the kalguksu — a gently briny clam broth bathing soft, hand-cut flour noodles.

click to enlarge Soup with sides at Ban Chan.
Soups with excellent flavor and depth are among the best dishes at Ban Chan.
Dominic Armato

Comfort and community

Media, particularly online, has a reductivist tendency to frame food appreciation as a winner-take-all quest for the best. But embracing that framework robs us of the diversity that makes any restaurant scene special. A restaurant doesn’t have to be the best — if a singular "best" even exists — to speak with a unique voice and say something interesting.

If you ask Woo what makes Ban Chan’s menu special, she’ll tell you it isn’t any specific dish so much as it is the focus on communal dining. She points to her massive hot pots, which can easily feed a crowd.

The “Deluxe Seafood Hot Pot” is practically an aquarium. Loaded with a menagerie of sea critters and hefty bricks of tofu, it comes in a cauldron and looks like a five-alarm fire in the making. It’s spicy, no doubt, but less than you think. And beneath that fire is a surprisingly gentle, mellow seafood broth that hits hard when it’s hot, but reveals its subtleties as the soup slowly cools.

Similarly, the pork belly and kimchi hot pot is flat-out dynamite. Filled with huge uncut heads of house kimchi and a massive, thick slab of honeycomb-scored pork belly, you have to take scissors to the contents before dishing it out. Hold a bowl to your nose and you can smell the gentle, deep sourness before you take a bite.

And spicy barbecue pork is fine on its own, but it’s a party when you order it as a set with a basket of greens and herbs to pass around and wrap it up, and it comes with a small bowl of “miso soup.”

Unlike Japanese miso soup, this is made with doenjang, which sports a coarser, more intense flavor than most types of miso. The bowl bubbles and burps and reveals a mound of chopped and stewed vegetables within. It’s rustic, unfussy and loaded with flavor.

It’s not the “best” Korean soup in Arizona, nor the “most authentic.” But it’s comforting and delicious and I don’t know anyone else in town who makes it the same way. That makes it perfect.

Ban Chan Korean Cuisine

2090 S. Dobson Road, Mesa
Kitchen Hours: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Soups and noodles $14-$20; Korean BBQ $21-$29; Other mains $13-$28; Large format dishes $38-$48.

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