It wasn't easy growing up outside of Toledo for Korean siblings Agnes Hong and Peter Mah. "Our friends weren't familiar with Korean food," says 29-year-old Mah, owner of the recently opened Andersonville restaurant Jin Ju. "It was embarrassing when they'd open the refrigerator and see kimchi and say 'Ooh, what's that? And what's that smell?'" Their parents emigrated from Korea in 1971 and did everything in their power to assimilate the kids into American culture in terms of language, dress, and activities, but mealtime still involved dishes like pajon (scallion pancake), dak gan jang (fried chicken wings in a caramelized sweet-spicy sauce), miyuk (seaweed soup with mussels), and o jinga bokum (sauteed squid with hot green chili peppers and onions).
Hong worked as an advertising executive in New York City until 1997, and in the mid-90s she remembers seeing Korean restaurants popping up in lower Manhattan, well outside the ethnic neighborhood that centered around 32nd Street and Broadway. This new generation of restaurants catered to Koreans and non-Koreans alike. "When I moved to Chicago, it seemed like something was missing--the Korean restaurants here are run by Koreans and cater only to the Korean population," says the 30-year-old. "We thought, why don't we open a place where it's a little bit more atmosphere and service friendly but where the food is still just as good? I thought it would work especially in a market like Chicago, where the people are so diverse and everyone seems to appreciate food."
"I think it's time for Korean food to become known," says Mah. "We've seen so many sushi restaurants become so hip and popular. Besides, I really want to have a place that I'd like to hang out and where my friends can actually try Korean food without thinking it's something weird."
Neither of the two had ever worked in a restaurant. In early 2000 Mah, formerly a sales and marketing professional in the steel industry, left his day job to be a server at NoMi, then Bob San, and finally Shine/Morida in Lincoln Park. "I wanted to get as much experience as I could," he says. Meanwhile he and his sister started looking for a space. They eventually discovered Andersonville, which they felt wasn't as overcrowded as Wicker Park (where they'd also looked) and where the spaces for rent were a more manageable size than the huge warehouses available on Randolph. Their timing was impeccable: just as they were considering renting a space next door, the owner of the Turkish Cousin's at 5203 N. Clark decided to sell his restaurant. Mah jumped on the opportunity; he was savvy enough to know that if he bought the Cousin's business as a whole, he could simply apply for a change of ownership and walk right into a city permit and a liquor license, not to mention a well-equipped kitchen. "We feel very lucky," he says.
In order to bring new and old worlds together, Mah hired Agnes's husband, Yin Jin Hong, to give the food some pizzazz, and traditional Korean cook Jung Che, who answered an ad in a Korean newspaper, to keep dishes authentic. "We wanted to hire someone who'd be accepting of some change--a little bit in presentation and a little in toning down the spices," he says. "Yin Jin is so good at making the plates look beautiful but they're still true to the cuisine." He's also become Mah's business partner; Agnes has gone back into advertising.
All orders come with the traditional array of pickled vegetables called panchan, neatly lining tiny square dishes on a rectangular matte black plate. Jin Ju's version of kalbi, the braised short ribs that are often prepared tabletop in other Korean restaurants, come already cooked, surrounded by a bed of torn red-leaf lettuce tossed in a sesame vinaigrette (in place of the traditional stack of leaves meant for wrapping around the meat). They've also separated the menu into appetizers, salads, soups, and entrees, although all of these would traditionally be served family style in no particular order.
The long list of mixed drinks made with soju (Korean vodka, made with sweet potatoes) is authentic--Hong says she's been drinking them since she was young--even if the name "sojutini" isn't. (There's an equally long martini menu.) The room, clearly geared toward a stylish crowd--with exposed wood beams overhead, black ceiling fans, crimson walls, and electropop coming through the speakers--also pays homage to tradition with a shelf full of kimchi urns, used to ferment the chili-marinated cabbage dish. Hong brought them back from Korea, where she visits Yin Jin's family annually. "His mother has this cave behind their house filled with jars of kimchi and other pickled stuff," she says. "It's amazing."
Jin Ju isn't the first Korean restaurant in Chicago to try to bridge the East-West gap; Wicker Park's Soju, which opened two and a half years ago, is also family run and also serves authentic cuisine in a modern room. But at Jin Ju the flavors and textures of the food really come alive. "If our servers are any example, we're sure our customers will like the food," says Mah. "None of our staff had ever tried Korean food, and now they're all hooked."
Jin Ju is at 5203 N. Clark, 773-334-6377.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.