Exploring Peter Cho’s Korean Culinary Empire in Portland

Portland, Oregon, is not just any city; it’s a pulsating heart of culinary innovation, where every restaurant tells a story, every dish a narrative of flavors, cultures, and traditions. I’m a regular in the city, making a pilgrimage for the food scene nearly quarterly. I’ve flown there for the day to eat at a certain restaurant. One of the chefs who have significantly contributed to this vibrant tapestry is Peter Cho, whose establishments Han Oak, Toki, and the newly opened Jeju have become cornerstones of the city’s gastronomic scene. Under Cho’s visionary guidance, each restaurant offers a unique exploration into the depths of Korean cuisine, tailored to reflect its own identity while contributing to a cohesive story of culinary excellence.

Han Oak: A Homage to Tradition and Family

Nestled in an unassuming corner of Portland, Han Oak is more than a restaurant; it’s a sanctuary where the warmth of Korean family-style dining is celebrated. The ambiance is a delicate balance of intimacy and community, where diners are invited into Cho’s culinary realm and treated more like family guests than customers. The regularly changing menu at Han Oak is a testament to the traditional Korean dining experience, with dishes designed to be shared, savored, and enjoyed together.

The current iteration of Han Oak is the aptly named Gimbap Party. Gimbap is a dish often likened to sushi but distinctly Korean in its flavors and preparation. Gimbap at Han Oak is not just food; it’s an experience, a communal activity that bonds diners. You meticulously prepare each roll with ingredients that sing of freshness and authenticity. The seaweed is crisp, the rice perfectly seasoned, and the fillings, ranging from pickled vegetables, fish, beef, pork, herbs, and the ubiquitous rice paper, are flavorful and rich. Sharing Gimbap at Han Oak is akin to sharing stories, which brings people closer, wrapped in the restaurant’s cozy ambiance.

Chef and owner Cho was present the night I visited and took the time to visit with me briefly before heading to the kitchen to oversee his team the evening.

511 NE 24th Ave Portland, OR 97232

Toki: A Celebration of Street Food and Casual Dining

Toki, in contrast, is Cho’s ode to Korea’s bustling street food scene. Here, the atmosphere buzzes with energy, mirroring the vibrant streets of Seoul. The menu is a playful journey through Korea’s casual dining culture, offering familiar and innovative dishes. Toki is where diners come to unwind, indulge in the flavors of Korean street food, and enjoy the simplicity of good food served with no pretense.

Chicken Sando at Toki. Photo by Greg Brinkman.

I’ve visited Toki twice, and each visit has been a delight. Go for brunch. The Omurice is the one item currently on the menu from my previous visits, and it is a must-try; kimchi fried rice with a ‘tornado’ omelet and furikake is fantastic. On a subsequent visit I had to try the steamed bao bun. A classic cheeseburger in a bao bun was the perfect mix of American meets Korean street food.  The Korean Fried Chicken Sando was just spicy enough without being overbearing and incredibly flavorful. 

580 SW 12th Ave,  Portland, OR 97204
(503) 312-3037

Jeju: A New Chapter in Culinary Sophistication

The latest addition to Cho’s culinary portfolio, Jeju, named after the Korean island known for its pristine beauty and unique cuisine, offers a refined take on Korean dining. The ambiance of Jeju is a blend of elegance and tranquility, reflecting the serene beauty of its namesake. 

Jeju Banchan. Photo by Greg Brinkman

A memorable experience at Jeju is the Ssam experience. Ssam, meaning “wrapped” in Korean, is a dish where diners create their own wraps using a variety of ingredients, including meats, seafood, and vegetables, wrapped in leafy greens. At Jeju, the Ssam experience is elevated to an art form. The ingredients are of the highest quality, with meats that are tender, flavorful, fresh, and sometimes unique cuts from the whole animal butchery practice. Creating Ssam at Jeju is personal and communal, allowing diners to customize their wraps while sharing the collective joy of dining together.

626 SE Main St. Portland, OR 97214

The Culinary Trilogy: A Comprehensive Narrative

Peter Cho’s establishments, Han Oak, Toki, and Jeju, together form a comprehensive narrative of Korean cuisine. Han Oak is a celebration of family and tradition, where the dining experience is intimate and communal. Toki represents the vibrant and accessible side of Korean dining, focusing on street food and casual eats. On the other hand, Jeju is a journey into Korean cuisine’s refined and sophisticated aspects, focusing on whole-animal butchery.

Through these restaurants, Cho has not only introduced Portland to the diverse flavors of Korean cuisine but has also woven it into the fabric of the city’s culinary identity. His establishments are more than just dining spaces; they are cultural experiences that invite exploration, conversation, and a deeper understanding of Korean culinary traditions.  

As I reflect on my journey through Cho’s culinary landscape, from the communal Gimbap experience at Han Oak to the sophisticated Ssam experience at Jeju, I am reminded of the power of food to bring people together, tell stories, and celebrate culture. Peter Cho’s trilogy of restaurants in Portland stands as a testament to his passion, creativity, and dedication to sharing the beauty of Korean cuisine with the world. In a city celebrated for its culinary diversity, Cho’s establishments shine brightly, offering diners a chance to embark on a delicious journey of discovery, one meal at a time.

Greg Brinkman
Greg Brinkman
Greg Brinkman is a freelance food, travel, and culture writer. He has written for Salt Lake Magazine and Suitcase Foodist. He is a professional dabbler and is obsessed with all things food, travel, style and fitness.

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