In 2014, word circulated that one of Manhattan’s rising stars had moved to Portland with big plans. It took months to hunt him down. Portland Monthly excitedly broke the news that near-royalty from the Michelin-starred Spotted Pig was among us: “Peter Cho, to open his first restaurant in Portland, a wood-fired Korean spot. Date and location TBD.”
Nine years later, it’s happening. End of June. 636 SE Main Street.
In February, Cho and his partner-wife Sun Young Park—the minds behind Portland icons Han Oak and Toki—leased the former home of Renata, soaring rafters, hearth, pizza oven, bar, private patio, and all. And as of Monday, they named it Jeju, after the big South Korean island, a popular setting for honeymoons and K-dramas.
The ambitious project is a 180 from the seat-of-pants ethos of Han Oak, the couple’s haven of hot pots and gimbap. Han Oak feels like an underground house party. Jeju has a more grown-up vibe, with multiple tasting menu formats, a bar ready to dive deep into little-known Korean liqueurs and spirits, and a commissary back kitchen to drive catering and events for all three restaurants. Eventually, Jeju hopes to create a separate menu for the bar and patio. And, of course, fun will be a key ingredient. The house music will run from hip-hop to K-pop, and when the dust settles, Jeju hopes to continue Han Oak’s best-kept secret in the new private dining room: karaoke, at the end of service, crowd willing.
Jeju is near completion. Where Renata had the polish and demeanor of a San Francisco Italian restaurant, Jeju feels more like a Korean home: giant plants, pottery, handblown glass baubles, origami lamps, warm wood everywhere.
The multicourse menus feature whole-animal Korean barbecue, tapping Cho’s expertise in nose-to-tail butchery, learned in New York. Expect butcher cuts, aged meats, custom grinds, and sausages in the mix. Pescatarians and vegetarians will get their own playlist.
Take note: wood-fired Korean barbecue is not about the smoke and drama. It’s more lightly smoked, over embers. “Korean food is plain, simply seasoned, using marinades and braises to make it right,” says Cho. “It’s about maximizing the art of the char.”
Korean barbecue has never strayed from the couple’s mind. Han Oak opened in 2016, with a barrage of seasonal banchan, '80s hip-hop, and meats sizzled outside on Cho’s funky, backyard smoker built from cinder blocks and spare parts. A year later, Han Oak was Portland’s coolest eat spot and PoMo’s Restaurant of the Year.
The following summer, more ad hoc fire gear appeared, fueling slow-roasted pork belly ssams and “guest chef in the pit” dishes. Among them: a tripod hoisting a swinging pot, a contraption last spotted on a Viking raid.
Jeju will skew more toward this century. But early Han Oak remains the Jeju prototype.
The restaurant kicks off unofficially on Sunday, June 25, with a dinner by Cho and guest chef Mei Lin, who beat Gregory Gourdet by a few crumbs to win Top Chef season 12. Lin, who lives in LA, has become something of an unofficial Portlander, with ties to local chefs. The event is the first in the Oregon AAPI Food and Wine Dinner series, pairing a local and guest AAPI chef with wines made by AAPI winemakers in the Willamette Valley, and running $250 per person via resy.com.
Day-to-day prices and details are still in the works, but roughly $65 is the starting point for an array of banchan, ssams (wrapped in leafy lettuce), chilled noodles, and always, “mom’s kimchi.” The next step, $85–$95, adds extra snacks and sides and more custom cuts. The official opening day is still unknown, but shortly thereafter. Stay tuned.
Until then, three Jeju talking points:
It’s named Jeju because: Cho’s maternal family hails from the island. And "Jeju" was the only name not laughed out of the room by a jury of four visiting aunties recently. The imos have spoken.
Coolest kitchen move: Cho adapted the former Renata pizza oven into a “high powered broiler.” “This burns 800, 900 degrees,” grins Cho. “It’s not just for pizza or bread. We can finish dishes right here. So much more char.”
Prediction: The Korean BBQ omakase will be summer’s hardest reservation. There are only six seats at the chef’s counter. Once Jeju is settled in, Cho will curate a weekend chef’s choice dinner at counter seats steps away from the hearth. Estimated price: $125. I’ll fight you for the last reservation.