Hana Korean Barbeque has reopened. For some of us, this is momentous news which requires no further elaboration. For others, allow me to try to describe why this event carries singular importance on Cairo’s dining landscape.
Hana is a Zamalek institution. For as long as many of us can remember, it has been established on the ground floor of the Zamalek Hotel, as Brazil Street fades into Mohamad Mazhar as it turns leftward toward Sequoia. Nightly it is packed with Koreans. Its décor was kitsch, faded, and utterly appropriate. The tables each contained a grill where you, if you were brave, could do the cooking yourself. The wait staff never changed. The kindly Korean owners were always present, watching TV in the corner. The Stella beer was always served cold.
Hana had a dedicated following. Therefore the news that it had closed was an intense tragedy for many of us. As always, reliable information was difficult to come by. At the start, it was rumored that it was closed for renovations. However, as the months wore on, this became more and more difficult to believe. Eventually, it became known that the building owners had decided on a new concept for the space, and the full scale of our loss become evident when a nondescript neon sign advertising a Chinese restaurant rose in Hana’s place. I have yet to set foot in this establishment. Given its rude usurping of Hana’s rightful location, chances are I never will.
Just when we were coming to terms with the fact that Hana was gone for good, a Hana Barbeque sign appeared a few days ago just around the corner from the old location on Hassan Assim St. Terrified that it was an impostor, I popped my head in a few evenings later. What a delight to find all the familiar faces gathered there, the friendly owners, the frenzied waiters, even the same mysteriously familiar Korean patrons.
The updated Hana is only a few days old. Its décor is still a work in progress. There isn’t much on the walls; electrical chords still run along the floor. They have updated their menu, and the new pictures make ordering the most mysterious items on the menu a bit less daunting. The delightful bowls of kimchi are still brought out before the meal. The Stella is still served just above freezing.
We are Hana regulars. However, we haven’t had much success in ordering deep off the menu. The menu can be intimidating to the uninitiated. At least you don’t have to worry about starters or dessert; these come out automatically, on the house. Starters are a superb selection of Korean appetizers, including ginger spinach, fried potatoes, kimchi (pickled cabbage), all with an edge of mildly exotic tasting zesty Korean spice. Dessert is cut fresh fruit according to the season. So, all you have to worry about is what comes in between. Even this can be a challenge, with hundreds of options, including shrimp, squid, beef, pork, chicken, eel, tongue, and liver, in addition to a rather limited selection suitable for vegetarians.
We resort to two well established favorites: beef bulgogi, cooked in the kitchen, not at the table, and something called bip and bop that combines beef, vegetables, rice and an egg on top. It may sound disturbing, and you won’t find it written that way on the menu, but the waiters all know it this way, and it’s delightful.
With the re-opening of Hana, a significant cross-section of Zamalek, and I suspect much further afield, breathes a significant sigh of relief. Cairo is all about transformations these days. The old is out; the new is in. In some cases, this is fine, even justified. In others, it is a tragedy. Some things were meant to last. Welcome back Hana.
Details: 25 Hassan Assim St., Zamalek; open from noon to 12:30am. Dinner for two: around LE150.