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

Korean Seoulfood Cafe

560 W. Van Buren | 312-427-4293

$$

ASIAN, KOREAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: THURSDAY-SATURDAY TILL 1, sunday-wednesday till midnight

The name of Korean Seoulfood Cafe may pun on South Korea's capital, but the cook's from Chonju, in the southwest of the country. There, in the rice bowl of the peninsula, the food is spicier, saltier, and generally more highly regarded than the rest of the nation's—and here in Chicago the cook isn't trying to coddle patrons with oversweetened glop. Chonju is the home of the ubiquitous rice dish bi bim bop, and at Seoulfood it's available with chicken, shrimp, or pork as well as the more common beef. It's a deep bowl filled with quality grains, but like most items on the menu, it's a mite pricier than what you'll find on the northwest side. Then again, that's where you'd otherwise have to go to find less common dishes like beo-sut jeon gol, a hot pot filled with chap chae and assorted mushrooms; "Harry Met Sally," a special of spicy stir-fried pork belly and squid; and nak ji bok keum, broiled octopus with noodles and vegetables that's usually eaten while the critter is still in its death throes (not here, unfortunately). A few panchan come with each order, including a salty-sour jalapeno kimchi I'd never seen before. The house cabbage kimchi is fresh and crisp, and though I prefer a bit more funk myself, it has a respectable burn. I like this place—even if some dishes are served in tinfoil containers like TV dinners, giving the impression that they've been held and reheated. I guess that's the price of offering such a large menu of relatively obscure items. —Mike Sula

Mi Na Ri

3311 W. Bryn Mawr | 773-267-3590

$$

ASIAN, korean | LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY

Minari is the Korean name for an herb related to parsley and dropwort that typically makes an appearance in seafood hot pots and stews, the house specialty at this spare little spot on Bryn Mawr. Hot pots of cod, assorted shellfish, and "honkfish" (a species identical to monkfish whose habitat seems to be strictly limited to the English portion of the menu) come steaming to the table with radish, tofu, mushroom, and minari in a spicy red broth. For whole grilled fish one can choose among saury, hairtail, and yellow corvina in additional to the mackerel that seems to be available in every Korean restaurant on the planet. Besides seafood there are a few other atypical dishes, including four varieties of jook, or rice porridge, popular nourishment during periods of unruly digestion; an enormous bowl of house-made noodles in thick chicken broth; and a selection of refreshing "summer special" noodle dishes. The side dishes vary according to availability, but if you're lucky you'll get gejang, sweet raw crabs marinated in soy and spiced with red pepper paste. —Mike Sula

San Chae Dol Sot Restaurant

3737 W. Lawrence | 773-588-5223

$$

KOREAN, ASIAN | LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED: SUNDAY | BYO

Located in a Lawrence Avenue strip mall, San Chae Dol Sot is easy to drive past, its vague signage of little help. Once inside and seated, guests are greeted briskly but benevolently (the controlling-mother-type service will continue for the rest of your visit, so it's best to just accept it). Dolsot bi bim bop is the house specialty, and few places offer more variations. The dish consists of a hot stone pot, or dolsot, filled with steamed rice and a combination of meats, vegetables, seafood, and kimchi. Assuming you mix your bi bim bop correctly, you'll be rewarded with the prized crispy golden rice clinging to the bottom of your bowl—the best part of the meal. An egg topper, to my mind a critical component of bi bim bop, is not normally served here—if you want one you'll have to ask for it by its Korean name (dal-gyal) while miming the act of cracking an egg. San Chae Dol Sot has one of the better panchan selections in town, and while they don't give you a lot, whatever they put on the table is fresh. Typical soups and stews are also on the menu, and you can get barbecue cooked for you in the kitchen. Unlike most Korean restaurants, San Chae Dol Sot isn't open late at night, and be forewarned: anyone still on the premises at closing time is asked to put down the chopsticks and leave. —Kristina Meyer

San Soo Gap San

5247 N. Western | 773-334-1589

$$

ASIAN, KOREAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 5

Ever since the demise of 24 Hour Korean Restaurant, San Soo Gap San (and to a lesser extent Hai Woon Dae) has ruled the night and early morning in terms of after-hours Korean food, notwithstanding the occasionally grouchy service. The coals are live, the panchan is plentiful, and there are a number of very well done nonbarbecue items available, including a resurrecting hot-sweet stir-fried sam gyeop sal (bacon) panfried with kimchi and hearty hot soups like kalbi tang (a soup of slow-simmered short ribs), yuk gae jang (spicy shredded beef soup), and tofu stew. Additionally SSGS gives very good tongue, thinly sliced, tender, and delicious smeared through a little red pepper paste. While it's not my favorite Korean restaurant, at 4 AM it hardly ever matters. —Mike Sula

Solga Charcoal Grill and Noodle

5828 N. Lincoln | 773-728-0802

$$$

asian, KOREAN, NOODLES | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 11

Located in the formerly drab space that housed Pyung Yang Myun Ok, Solga is a smarter-looking, sleeker outfit. Purists may still be disappointed: Solga's pots get a boost from a gas flame. But the flavors don't suffer. The house special, kalbi (short ribs), comes plain or marinated in a piquant mix of soy, garlic, and sugar. Other meats for grilling include tripe and baby octopus. Mixed seafood or red-meat hot pots and assorted Korean standards like sul lung tang (beef marrow soup) are solidly rendered. One holdover from Pyung Yang's menu, naengmyeon (homemade buckwheat noodles), is served chilled in broth and makes a refreshing summer meal. Panchan come eight strong (including kimchi, kimchi daikon, fried tofu strips, seaweed salad, and boiled potato) and are cheerfully replenished. Tatami rooms are available. —Peter Tyksinski

Woo Chon

5744 N. California | 773-728-8001

$$

ASIAN, KOREAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

This ramshackle shotgun brick house is a curious sight from the outside, wedged into an odd, angled alley behind Lincoln Avenue, across California from a convenience store that stocks Libertarian Party literature. It doesn't look like it could handle a stiff breeze, let alone a throng of 17 birthday partiers, a motley mob of experienced Korean barbecuers as well as novices, hard-core carnivores, and squeamish plant eaters. But the waitstaff were pros, juicing us with soju and beer and commandeering the tongs to flip tender slices of beef whenever we revelers got lost in our own noise. Did it matter that the panchan arrived after appetizers, buckets of hot coals, and the huge platters of marinating meat? The vegetarians were placated, huddling over their bowls of bi bim bop, while the meat eaters filled up with heavy appetizers like yook hoi, shredded raw beef tossed with Asian pear, sesame oil, and egg yolk, and goon mandoo, fat, beefy fried dumplings. The house regained control when the waitress firmly removed the beef short ribs after a greenhorn mistakenly placed them on a grill already crusted with the sirloin's sweet marinade. A scoured metal rack was delivered and the ribs were given the green light, though after the lean steak, their relatively stringy spare flesh was superfluous. A late-arriving peppery miso soup with zucchini and tofu floaters made a bracing dessert and probably the only suitable finish to such relentless meating. —Mike Sula

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