You can hear a good bi bim bap before you smell it.

“Ears first! Listen!” a Korean culinary student commanded me at dinner on my first visit to Seoul. “That noise is the sound of narangji (rice on the bottom of the vessel, cooked crunchy like socarrat at the bottom of a paella pan). It’s being born! If you can’t hear anything, you better fill up on dumplings,” she said.

At a visit last week to Yobo, in Portland’s Arts District, I heard a fusillade of sizzles and crackles before our server had even set the smoking-hot ddukbaegi, a heavy earthenware bowl, down in front of me. Right away, I knew I was in good hands.

Chef/co-owner Sunny Chung’s bi bim bap with beef ($15) is mostly traditional – and all the better for it – with slices of local hanger steak seared medium rare, crunchy mung bean sprouts and a raw egg yolk that gives the rice a Carbonara-like creaminess as it trickles through the grains. That yolk is especially good in a spoonful that includes tender slices of hobak, a squash that tastes like a sweet zucchini.

At this time of year, it and many of the other vegetables on the menu come from Chung’s mother’s sprawling garden in New Hampshire, close to where he and his wife, server and front-of-house manager Kim Lully, still live. “The veggies really vary depending on what’s coming out of her garden,” he said.

And when it’s too early in the year for a harvest, Chung and his mother forage for ingredients, like gosari, or bracken fern heads, that they pick wild from a field, blanch, then squeeze into balls that are stored in the freezer. When stir-fried, a gosari tastes like a green bean that thinks it’s an asparagus stalk.

You’ll often find gently wilted gosari in Yobo’s banchan ($5), a selection of three small side dishes meant to be nibbled on with rice or soup throughout the meal. On a recent visit, Chung had dressed his quick-fried gosari with sesame oil and ginger – a preparation he repeated almost exactly with julienned strips of icicle-cold daikon radish so terrifically garlicky they made my eyes water.

Best of all three banchan, however, was a shallow dish of garden-grown perilla that had been braised in chili and soy sauce. Each leaf catches you by surprise in the back of the throat with its fiery heat, then placates the rest of your mouth with layers of licorice, mint and a lip-pursing astringency. Unusually, Yobo’s banchan are served as an a la carte snack, not as an appetizer that arrives automatically, just after a guest places an order. At their other restaurants, Chung and Lully have served banchan this way, but were discouraged by the amount of food they wasted. “Not everyone wants it,” Chung told me. “If it’s free, sometimes you feel like you don’t have to eat it, or even try it. We don’t want it to end up in the trash, because there is a lot of work that goes into it.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic, even if it means that some diners might never know what they’re missing. Don’t be one of them; spend the $5. These banchan would be a bargain at twice the price.

Indeed, most of Yobo’s menu represents great value, down to a wine list with bottles just north of $30. That’s something it has in common with its predecessor, Bibo’s Madd Apple Café, a beloved local restaurant that operated in the same location for 18 years.

“We ran two other restaurants in New Hampshire before, and that whole time, we used to come to Portland for most of our time off on weekends – almost two decades,” Chung said. “We had been looking for a place to build a restaurant in Portland for a while. One day, we came in and chatted with Bill (Boutwell, Bibo’s former owner), and he told us the space was coming available. We really got lucky.”

Yobo is in the space formerly occupied by Bibo’s Madd Apple Cafe. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

When they moved into the storefront on Forest Avenue, they placed fermentation pots for kimchi and makgeolli (a milky, beer-like probiotic beverage made from rice) in the front window, painted all the walls a neutral, gray-green and hung framed photographs of their cooking and dining adventures. One unwelcome addition to the space is a glass wall that separates the front section of the restaurant into an echoey waiting room. Sitting there with another party is like waiting for a table inside a racquetball court.

Lully does her best to move guests into the dining room as quickly as she can, though, always seeming to defuse incipient crankiness with a smile. She is also excellent at educating diners – she knows the menu down to the tiniest detail of preparation – and convincing them to order dessert, which she prepares herself. “The buttermilk panna cotta is from my side of the family, and it makes the perfect mouthful after spice,” she told a neighboring table of four. Within seconds, she had sold three desserts, as well as another two to guests at the next table, seduced through overhearing.

While it’s not Korean at all, her panna cotta with thyme syrup, Ginger Gold apples and oat crumble ($8) syncs up well with the rest of the menu – especially the most fiery dishes, like KFC (Korean Fried Chicken, $12), which Chung makes from deboned, brined chicken meat that is coated in potato and corn starches, then fried and tossed with gochujang paste, rice syrup and honey.

Bi bim bap features local hanger steak seared medium rare, crunchy mung bean sprouts and a raw egg yolk.

The sticky red chili sauce delivers an inflammatory slap of exactly the right force: enough spice to linger, yet not enough to leave your mouth numb. But the deep-fried shell on the chicken – thanks to its single trip through the fryer – becomes soggy quickly. Worse, I found the chicken itself overcooked.

So too, the bindaetteok ($9), a savory pancake made from a mung bean and glutinous rice batter, swirled with garlic chives and kimchi. “Here, do this: Ignore the dark part around the outside and eat only the center,” my dinner guest instructed. I followed his lead, dabbing wedges of bindaettok into the tart dipping sauce, leaving the singed perimeter of the pancake behind. A decent workaround for a dish that was just a few minutes past excellent.

With only two people doing all the work at Yobo, it’s a testament to Chung’s talent that there are few such miscues in execution. Even more astonishing is that he pulls off complicated, time-consuming dishes like kalbi ($18), English-cut beef ribs that must be butterflied and marinated for days in brown sugar and a sweet onion puree before char-grilling. Chung’s kalbi are vividly smoky, caramelized and sticky-sweet, an ideal contrast to the pungent spoonful of kimchi served alongside.

Some of those same flavors repeat in his superb mandu dumplings ($7). Chung fills homemade wheat flour wrappers with kimchi and ground pork and adds softened japchae (glass noodles made from sweet potato starch) for texture. When our plate of three glossy, golden brown mandu arrived – still far too hot to eat – one let out a residual “pop!” from cooking. I smiled. It was just what I hoped to hear.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME