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Seoul Food 

Fourteen Korean restaurants

[Plus: Michael Gebert on Avondale's Dragonlady Lounge]

Cheogajip/Pizza & Chicken Love Letter

8273 W. Golf, Niles | 847-583-1582

$

KOREAN, PIZZA | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: every night TILL 11 | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

In South Korea, curious interpretations of American fast food are extremely popular. Fried chicken "hofs" serving beer and whole chickens, cut up and drenched in thick sweet-spicy sauce, seem to be on every street corner, and Italian restaurants, hilariously but less successfully to my taste, dress pizzas with bulgogi, root vegetables, and sweet mayonnaise. Pizza & Chicken Love Letter, the first local incursion of Korean megachain Cheogajip, offers both (but no beer) from its location deep in a suburban strip mall. Small hacked chickens are fried to order in a neutral batter—similar to Brown's, a friend observed—and served plain or drenched in sweet or sweet-hot sticky sauce with a powerful cinnamon note. The chain also offers rotisserie and popcorn chicken. Pizza crusts are thick and biscuitty, and in the case of the Royal Potato pizza, stuffed with sweet potato, topped with pepperoni and potato chunks, and drizzled with mayo. Eat-in orders are preceded by diced daikon in supersweet vinegar and repulsive shredded raw cabbage smothered with Thousand Island dressing and canned corn. Order a combo for the full Lost in Translation novelty and brace for a hallucinogenic MSG rush. —Mike Sula

Chicago Kalbi

3752 W. Lawrence | 773-604-8183

$$

ASIAN, KOREAN, JAPANESE | DINNER: SUNDAY-MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED TUESDAY | OPEN LATE: MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

Considering the great number of Koreans that run sushi bars around town, is it really so strange that a kalbi place would be run by a Japanese-Korean couple? Here there are terrific appetizers of oyster pajun—bivalves individually cooked in eggy batter—and a lightly fried, almost tempura-style chicken. But the varieties of panchan are milder and scarcer than those in a typical Korean restaurant, and the barbecue meats are leaner, shaved from higher-quality cuts—the menu even advertises Kobe beef. Of course, the cooking is done over real wood charcoal, but because the delicate cuts have a harder time standing up to the intense heat, you really have to pay attention to what you're doing. The whole experience is a little more refined and less orgiastic than at most Korean places—it leaves you feeling as if you've eaten more like Sailor Moon than Conan the Barbarian. On the other hand, it attracts a great number of local and traveling Japanese pro ballplayers, whose posters cover the wall, and a collection of balls autographed by the likes of Hideki Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, and Ichiro Suzuki is enshrined under the register. Overall it's less forbidding than a typical kalbi restaurant, and perhaps as a result there are always lots of white people at the tables. "That's because it's not real Korean," a skeptical Korean told me. —Mike Sula

Cho Sun Ok Restaurant

4200 N. Lincoln | 773-549-5555

$

ASIAN, KOREAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

Woo Bok Lee opened his restaurant in 1979, and it stands today as the oldest operating Korean restaurant in the city. People still line up nightly at the door for a table in the tight, close room, where the specialties are five varieties of naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles) and "stone pan cooking." The latter (for two or more people) involves gas burners on the table fueling a heavy stone griddle upon which a variety of seasoned meats are seared—octopus, beef, tripe, or a combination. Marinated vegetables and steamed rice (or noodles) are then cooked in the rendered juices, the rice crisps on the pan, and the resulting fabric-penetrating aromas can be whiffed down the block. Originally a North Korean specialty, naengmyeon are served cold and slippery, a bracing refreshment in hot weather, usually in light beef broth garnished with slivered cucumber or radish, hard-boiled egg, mustard, and red pepper paste. I prefer the two "dry" variations served here with hot sauce, one topped with raw, chewy skate. Unfortunately barbecue orders don't include lettuce to wrap the meat, and the varieties of panchan are fewer—and in some cases less aggressively seasoned—than those in other Korean barbecue houses. Perhaps because Cho Sun Ok is so venerable, the crowds forgive it. —Mike Sula

Crystal Korean Restaurant

5800 N. Lincoln | 773-275-0489

$

ASIAN, KOREAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

No karaoke or squawking flat-screen TVs here, just home-style Korean in a bright, refreshingly comfortable space. The menu skews toward hearty dishes: pork stir-fries and spicy stews with kimchi and tofu; filling rice cakes served with noodles, vegetables, and fish cakes. The waiter may attempt to dissuade you from ordering broiled mackerel because of its strong taste, but persevere—crisp-skinned, succulent, and served with a topknot of lemon and fresh hot pepper, it's well worth the diplomacy. Mandoo (dumplings), steamed or fried, are essential starters here; made in-house, they're stuffed and pleated with the care that might be bestowed on tucking a newborn into its cradle. A couple of the appetizers on the rotating list might seem implausible, but they generally work: for example, seaweed noodle (nori wrapped around potato-starch noodles and mozzarella, then deep-fried) was delicious. —Gary Wiviott

Hai Woon Dae

6240 N. California | 773-764-8018

$$

ASIAN, korean | LUNCH: SATURDAY-SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 5

When it comes to late-night Korean barbecue, the small, sedate, and friendly Hai Woon Dae is a better bet than the vastly more popular San Soo Gap San. As at SSGS, live coal grilling is the focus, but there's a greater, more interesting, and lovingly prepared selection of table meats and kitchen-cooked dishes. I particularly like the yook hwe, beef tartare dressed with raw egg and julienned Asian pear (also available on bi bim bap), or panfried bacon with kimchi (sam gyeop sal kimchi bokum), steamed eggs (gyelan jjim), cold spicy buckweat noodles with raw fish (hwe naengmyeun), and a thick, tangy kimchi pancake. There are three kinds of grilled mackerel; a great selection of two-person "casseroles," hot pots bubbling with goat and vegetables or pig trotters and shank; and a plate of pungent preserved crabs (gye jang bak ban) you won't forget for weeks. —Mike Sula

Han Bat

2723 W. Lawrence | 773-271-8640

$

ASIAN, KOREAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

This unassuming, half-hidden hole wedged between a defunct Korean bar and the late, great Penguin does one thing well enough to win written testimonials from Korean pop stars and luminaries. It's sul lung tang, or ox-bone soup, a great bowl of goodness with its origins in centuries-old harvest rites, after which the bones of a sacrificial beast of burden were boiled for hours to make a milky white broth. Bland, silky, and rich with marrow, it's a specialty of the region surrounding Seoul, and in these times valued as hangover remedy or a soothing morning meal. Here it's available with a choice of chap chae or white noodles and a variety of cow parts (flank, brisket, tongue, tripe, spleen, tendon, or a combination) and accompanied only by hot roasted corn tea and the refreshing, crisp, and spicy contrast of kkakdugi (diced radish) and whole cabbage kimchi, which a waitress scissors into pieces at the table. The soup can be livened at the diner's discretion with sea salt, chopped green onions, and chile paste. Should one desire some additional protein, plates of boiled brisket, tendon, or tongue are available, but a single spicy beef vegetable soup is the sole alternative to the house specialty. —Mike Sula

Jin Ju

5203 N. Clark | 773-334-6377

$$

ASIAN, korean | DINNER: seven days | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

Korean food goes hip: the walls are crimson and black, a huge mirror opens up the space, black fans spin from the wood-beamed ceiling, and electropop comes through the sound system. But the kitchen sticks to the classics. The plate-size haemul pajon (fried seafood pancake) comes loaded with scallions, squid, and meaty mussels; it's cut into squares and served with a soy dipping sauce. Mandoo (beef-filled dumplings) are served in the mini bamboo steamer they're cooked in, lined with bright cabbage leaves. An appetizer of daeji kalbi (barbecued pork spareribs) is marinated in the traditional kochujang (red pepper paste), then set off with a side of pickled onion triangles. Most familiar to the uninitiated will be the multiple versions of bi bim bop: dol sut bi bim bop is served with sesame oil in a sizzling hot stone pot; san chae bi bim bop is a vegetarian version. The kalbi (marinated beef short ribs) come surrounded with greens tossed in a soybean-paste sauce. All orders are served with a small tin of steamed rice and an assortment of panchan, tiny plates of marinated vegetables like kimchi and shredded daikon. Staff are up to speed on the food and knowledgeable about wine pairings. Better yet, they'll mix up a "sojutini"—soju is the vodkalike Korean spirit made from sweet potatoes—in a variety of flavors. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Kang Nam

4849 N. Kedzie | 773-539-2524

$$

KOREAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

When a meal starts with a man wearing flame-retardant hand gear bearing a blazing bucket of coals from the kitchen, it conjures all sorts of enjoyable medieval associations, as if he'd just taken a break from pounding out broadswords and horseshoes to provide fuel for your feasting. Kang Nam is one of the handful of Korean barbecue houses around town that offer that sort of spectacle (unlike those that use gas burners), and among them it's probably my favorite. The little accompanying bowls of panchan at this most generous of kalbi joints are plentiful, varied, and bottomless, and the glistening morsels of lean seasoned pork, beef, and cephalopod sizzling over the flames at the center of the table taste like you bagged them that morning. The primeval pleasure of eating such food with your hands is contrasted with the civilizing possibility of wrapping it in circles of pickled daikon or fresh red-leaf lettuce. Off the grill there are other good possibilities: the dolsot bi bim bop is particularly well-executed, with crispy raspa on the bowl's bottom, and rich gamy goat soup is robust with bright greens. Other bowls and soups are amply sized and aggressively seasoned. Food here is given individual attention, as the occasional sight of workers gathered round a table stuffing great piles of dumplings testifies. —Mike Sula

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