H Mart, the expanding grocery chain that has established its local presence in the Mesa Asian District, advertises itself as “a Korean tradition made in America.” For the most part, that’s accurate. Both the inventory on the grocery shelves and the meals served in the adjacent food court reflect the customs of Korean cuisine. Nevertheless, contemporary Korean cooking often incorporates influences not only from neighbors like China and Japan, but also European traditions from Italy and France. Da Pan reflects that diversity in its food court stall at H Mart.
Da Pan’s space, the first on the left after entering the food court, features a sign with the subtitle of “Danny’s Kitchen,” reflecting the involvement of local chef and restaurateur Danny Jeong, who has opened numerous ventures both in the H Mart food court and in a similar setting at the Asiana Market a mile-and-half to the south. There’s another sign saying “Stir Fry Kitchen Restaurant,” and that description is accurate in depicting how Da Pan melds Korean cuisine with non-traditional ingredients like mozzarella cheese and Japanese preparations like teriyaki.
To find Da Pan, first enter H Mart, which is just across the street from Sycamore/Main light rail station. A bike rack is found near the grocery entrance at the west end of the store. Da Pan is right next to the local outpost of the Paris Baguette bakery. As with all the tenants of the food court, customers order at a counter with a menu posted overhead. Once that is done, diners can choose seats anywhere in the shared space and wait for their number to be announced via the public address system. The food is presented in hefty stone bowls or platters on cafeteria trays.
There are three fried appetizers on the menu, and all of them can be combined in a sampler for an assortment of tastes. There are crisp dumplings with a fairly typical ground meat filling and breaded strands of chewy squid. The most distinctive item in the trio, however, is the seaweed rolls. These are meatless spring rolls with the usual rice paper wrapper replaced with an exterior layer of seaweed that encases a filling of minced vegetables. Everything else on the menu is entree-sized and paired with sides of miso soup, pickled radish slices, and gochujang sauce.
The top section of the menu is devoted to rice bowls, beginning with donburi that combine steamed white rice with meats like bulgogi, pork belly, or teriyaki chicken. The bowls also contain napa cabbage and an omelet, which blend almost indistinguishably into each other. Fried rice dishes include a signature version with kimchi and spam served in a tangy tomato sauce with mellowing influences from melted cheese on the side and a fried egg on top. All of the rice entrees are topped with generous quantities of sliced scallions and sesame seeds.
The larger bottom portion of the menu delves into noodles of multiple types, sometimes served individually and at other times paired in noodle-on-noodle combinations. Fried ramen noodles, similar to yakisoba, are served with the same protein choices as the rice bowls, along with two other possibilities: spicy pork ribs and kalbi, or barbecued beef short ribs. Scallions and napa cabbage add greenery, and a little melted mozzarella encircles the dish. Yaki udon dishes repeat the same theme but with the thicker white noodles often associated with Japanese soup.
The last type of noodle and the one most tied to Da Pan’s Korean identity is tapoki. These are thick, cylindrical rice cakes with a chewy texture as unique as their shape. The restaurant’s namesake Da Pan tapoki combines the rice cakes with disc-shaped fish cakes, egg, and vegetables. Other variants include both bulgogi and spicy chicken with mozzarella that blends with the sauce as it melts, moderating some of its fire. For those who want more noodles with their noodles, the jajang udon combines tapoki with thick wheat noodles and black bean sauce.
Rapoki, on the other hand, is a blend of tapoki with ramen. At the other end of the spectrum, omurice has no noodles or rice, instead topping an omelet with peppers, mushrooms, and onions. As with most food court tenants here, the only beverages are bottled water and a few canned sodas. There is no dessert, but either snow or pastry can be found just a few steps away. H Mart and its bustling food court are solidly Korean in their identity, but Da Pan is also part of the American tradition of multiple cultures and cuisines blending to create new traditions.
1919 W. Main St., Mesa AZ 85201