By Amy L. Carlson   Published Dec 06, 2004 at 5:35 AM

{image1} Although the décor at Han Kuk Kwan Korean Restaurant, in the old Izumi's space at 2178 N. Prospect Ave., isn't exactly spruced up -- the terra cotta interior and the clean, geometric lines of simple artwork are about the only changes -- the spicy yet savory dishes are enough to make me come back.

Korean food is predominantly known for its spicy sauces and marinades. The basic seasonings are red pepper, green onion, soy sauce, bean paste, garlic, ginger, sesame, mustard, vinegar and wine, which are often combined for sauces used to marinate meats or fish, and then served with steamed vegetables, rice or buckwheat noodles. Be forewarned, if spice is not your thing, then Han Kuk Kwan is not your restaurant. Every dish in house has a fiery kick to it -- although not as burning hot as I've had in some Korean restaurants.


On our Friday night visit, we were immediately greeted, seated and the friendly server promptly took our drink order. We shared a Hite beer ($4.50) -- a light Korean beer brewed with natural water from a bedrock basement 150 meters below the ground -- and sampled a mon doo appetizer ($3.95) -- light dumplings featuring cabbage, julienned mixed vegetables and tofu. The dumplings were perfectly steamed and had a pleasant, fresh taste.

Part of the dining experience at Han Kuk Kwan is a pre-entree parade of side dishes including spinach, deep-fried blue green fish, dried seaweed, sweet potato vines and a side order of the piquant house kimchi -- the most well-known traditional Korean dish, fermented cabbage heavily spiced with red pepper. We were pleasantly surprised by myriad assorted flavors and spices in these unexpected little side dishes.


The kal bi ($15.95) -- marinated and grilled beef spareribs -- came sliced in tender, juicy pieces with a savory sweet and spicy sauce with a hint of soy and sesame oil. Bibimbab ($8.95) -- steamed rice with mixed vegetables -- was served with a mound of perfectly cooked sticky rice and freshly steamed vegetables. I opted for beef in this normally vegetarian dish and was again thoroughly impressed with the tenderness and flavor of the marinated meat.

The Korean Restaurant Dinner ($19.95) proved to be perfect for first-time Korean cuisine samplers. The miso soup that accompanies this order was more hearty and flavorful than the recipes found at local sushi eateries. And it was a good starter for the bulkokie -- thinly sliced beef marinated in soy sauce, red pepper, sugars and sesame seeds served with mushrooms, carrots and green onions. (This dish can be ordered separately as an entrée for $13.95.) The main course of this entree is two pieces of cooked salmon atop a bed of sticky rice. It was a good thing we split this one.

For dessert, we sampled the mocha ice cream, which made a lovely foil for the sweet and spicy flavors that had tantalized us all evening long.

Han Kuk Kwan Korean Restaurant, (414) 289-8208) is open Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 4-9 p.m. No smoking. Some vegetarian options available.