While there's nothing philosophically wrong with that (usually), the Korean-ness at each of those places tends to be muted, diverted, or tempered by other global influences. The inherently aggressive, funky, spicy home style of conservative, old-school places like San Soo Gap San, Hai Woon Dae, and the late, great Kang Nam is still absent. Portions are smaller too, usually pricier, and there are no dour ajummas scissoring your kalbi for you. Ironically, the arrival of this newbie-friendly style has happened to coincide with a general decline in the city's Korean population. Albany Park, once known as Koreatown, has lost many older restaurants and groceries over the last decade or so, while similar businesses continue to grow in suburbs such as Niles and Mount Prospect as Koreans have migrated to the burbs.
The last time I visited a Korean restaurant in Wicker Park, things didn't go so well, so I was happily surprised by a recent outing to Tozi, a slick, spacious barbecue spot with a Seoul-seasoned chef who marries a fly K-pop sensibility with an uncompromising Korean sense of seasoning and generosity. Yeah, there's a list of treacly, fruity sojutinis, but also a decently priced selection of sojus and sakes by the bottle, and a comprehensive menu spanning the standards and including a number of rare items you won't find in many places up north.
Qualifications: the burners at the big roomy booths are fueled by gas, not charcoal, so you won't get the crispy, caramelized char that makes this style of eating so irresistible. And barbecue orders don't come with the normally requisite side of lettuce leaves or circular slices of shaved daikon to wrap up bits of griddled flesh either. But the house-made banchan is plentiful and varied (including a ballsy cabbage kimchi), and plenty of other extras come to the table, including raw garlic and jalapeño slices, raw sliced white onions and trumpet mushrooms, and a bowl of shaved and marinated daikon-onion salad. All of this is meant to be thrown on the grill to supplement the proteins, which you'll dredge in spicy soy sauce, bean paste, or sesame oil and eat along with a “lunchbox” of steamed rice and fried egg. The prices for barbecue orders are higher than your average far-northwest-side mom-and-pop, but the portions are substantial, and the quality of the meat is a measurable degree better, ranging from primo cuts such as filet mignon and sirloin to standards such as bulgogi and kalbi to off bits like intestine and tongue, and rarities such as whole baby octopus and fatty strips of spicy marinated duck.
Compared to overpriced tourist traps like the River East Japanese chain Gyu-Kaku, it's a fine value overall, and refutes the xenophobic canard that certain ethnic cuisines have to be cheap in order to be good. That's especially true considering that prices are a bit friendlier on the rest of the menu, which includes ample starters like fluffy charred oyster pancakes and gool bossam, the kimchi/pork belly/raw oysters triple threat, several varieties of bi bim bop (including a pickled raw crab and rice variant), big casseroles, stir-fries, stews, soups, and noodles. If the soothsayers are finally correct this year and the eating culture is ready to fully embrace Korean food that's unafraid to be wholly Korean, then Tozi came along at just the right time.
Tozi Korean BBQ Restaurant, 1265 N. Milwaukee, 773-252-2020