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A Korean bar crawl through Chicago and beyond

A tour of local K-bars where you'll find the best food for benders



The highest purpose of bar food, in all its cheesy, starchy, pinguid, deep-fried trashiness, is to sponge up as many bad decisions as possible before you wake up with a katzenjammer. This utilitarian function has become a lesser priority in this day of cheffy haute drinking food. The smoked hummus at the Fountainhead is delightful, but how is that going to help you after six pours of Macallan? The meat and cheese plate at Scofflaw is as well curated as a museum collection, but Bacchus help you after you start chasing your swizzles with Malort.

The future (and past) of both greasy-good and good-for-you bar food is not in the kitchens of our celebrated chefs. It's in dark, exteriorly forbidding Korean bars blasting gaggles of bleached K-pop ingenues like GFriend and Red Velvet.

One class of the city's old-school Korean bars has already faded away. Who remembers the Hourglass (aka Moraeshigae), Chongro, or even Suk Chon, hideouts that showed little sign of their charms until you got inside and the soju bombs started falling? A few key examples of these gastrobars or "hofs" (borrowed from the German hofbrauhaus) remain, but most of the action is in the near-north suburbs like Niles and Glenview, where many residents of Chicago's Koreatown have migrated over the last decade or so.

The food at a lot of these joints is rooted in classic Korean anju, drinking food, the kind of stuff you find all over Seoul after dark, when itinerant covered food stalls called pojangmacha pop up to wet the brains of night prowlers with copious shots of soju and fill their bellies with things like toasted dried squid, spicy skewered chicken, boiled pig's trotters, kimchi pancakes, and the spicy-sweet rice cakes known as ddeokbokki.

In both Chicago and the suburbs they're immobile and usually housed in strip malls behind dark glass with maybe only an inscrutable neon acronym to hint at what's inside. And often what's inside, in addition to more traditional anju, is a variety of surprisingly good mashups of Korean and Western foods.

Inspired by blogger Joyce Park, who writes about Korean food at Chicago Agashi, I undertook a three-day Korean bar crawl (henceforth known as KBC) to identify signature dishes, drinks, and attractions.

Let's start in the city at Dancen (5114 N. Lincoln, 773-878-2400), a small, somewhat claustrophobic bar that's probably the best known of the bunch simply because its food is among the best. It's bare-bones inside, and often swelteringly hot thanks to its most pleasing aesthetic feature, a blazing open grill behind the bar that flares ceilingward often enough that I always try to score a seat near the door in case hell breaks loose. Those gouts of flame are produced by Dancen's claim to fame: buldak or "fire chicken," a relatively recent dish from Korea, but one of its most painfully spicy. Here chicken marinated in chile, gochuchang, soy, and rice syrup is brought directly to the grill and flensed from its bones. It stays on the fire a long time, where it picks up a pleasing smoky char. It's served with the bones, which are fun to gnaw on after you've eaten the tender nuggets—if your jaw isn't locked in a rictus of pain. A side of raw cabbage dressed with Thousand Island accompanies it, but a better way of mitigating the heat is to order it topped with a thick blanket of melted white and yellow cheese. There are plenty of other good things on the lengthy menu: fried pork skin to dip in salted sesame oil and bee pollen, soups and stews, sauteed cephalopods, and a decent selection of soju and the fermented rice brew makgeolli. The thing many of the old K-bars lack is a good selection of Western spirits and beer, instead featuring just major Korean pale lagers and, for some reason, Blue Moon. That's true of Dancen, but not everywhere else.

Dancen's biggest competition in the city is Yeowoosai (6248 N. California, 773-465-7660) in West Rogers Park, owned and operated by Pete Cho and his mom, Stella, who also run the K-barbecue joint Gogi in the same strip mall. Open since 1995, it has a bit more style than Dancen, sporting a spacious bar and booths; exposed ductwork and giant wagon wheels on the walls give it a sort of mismatched steampunk look. Yeowoosai does buldak too, but its most popular dish is daktigem, or popcorn chicken, an enormous pile of heavily breaded boneless bird bits that comes plain or drenched in a sticky-sweet sauce. Budae jigae, aka "army stew," is also big—that's perhaps Korea's first Western-fusion food, a spicy kimchi soup that can contain things like hot dogs, Spam, and American cheese, historically proffered by American GIs. But the real showstopper at Yeowoosai is the kimchi bokkeumbap, an enormous skillet of kimchi fried rice that can be upgraded with Spam, bacon, eggs, chicken, potatoes, and, of course, melted cheese. By the time I got to this at the end of a long night it exhausted me. But the following morning I was shoveling it into my gob like an ape. Yeowoosai, whose name is a truncated sentence meaning "Let's talk about love," has a bar that's much better stocked, with a big list of craft beers and fruity cocktails.

The third K-bar within the city limits is a bit of an oddball, since it's debatable whether you can call it a K-Bar anymore. But it may be Chicago's only M-bar. A few years ago the current owner purchased the spacious Western Avenue noraebang (karaoke bar) Waba and renamed it Buba Cafe (5100 N. Western, 773-728-3222), installing a full Mongolian menu alongside a handful of Korean dishes like chap chae, bulgogi, and kalbi. But where else are you going to chirp along with Mongolian girl group Kiwi's smash hit "Superstitious" (or songs in ten other languages) while slurping down banshtai tsai? A restorative milk tea in which taut beef dumplings bob like apples, it's soothed hangovers across the steppes for ages. There are also juicy, supersize steamed beef dumplings called buuz and hand-pulled noodles called tsuivan, very much like the ones at nearby Jibek Jolu. The signature drinks here are fearsome 150-proof shots like the Brain Eraser and Gorilla Shot.

On to the suburbs. One of the older bars on the scene is DMZ Cafe (9353 N. Milwaukee, Niles, 847-663-1920), which seems to cater to a more sedate crowd than some of the others—you won't hear as many K-Pop hits as you will weepy K-slow jams. The food is more traditional too: sauteed gizzards, heavily and sweetly sauced chicken cutlets and wings and the like, plus soju and light beers to wash it all down. You'll need to hose off when you're done.

The vibe is radically different at nearby Agit (9098 W. Golf Rd., Niles, 224-353-9510), where kids throng out front vaping and thumping techno doesn't seem to bother the pair of Boston terriers hanging out in a playpen near the front of the bar. (Agit means "hideout", perhaps for the secret noraebang in back.) Here you want the spiral-cut skewered potato tornadoes (as seen on the streets of Seoul), the egg roll-like cheese sticks stuffed with sweet potato and gooey mozzarella, and the broiled octopus gussied up with a variety of condiments (shiso leaf, seaweed, daikon radish). Extinguish its heat with an enormous hollowed-out honeydew (or pineapple or watermelon) filled with a creamy, sweet fruit soju cocktail.

A little over a mile and half east on Golf Road sits BDG Sports Gastropub (2660 Golf Rd., Glenview, 847-729-2600), one of the newer bars on the scene. Fans of the late, great Hourglass will recognize the sign and the suit of armor from that bar—that's because it's owned by June Im, son of Hourglass's swashbuckling Mr. Im. Here Western sports-team logos cover the walls, and the TVs are more likely to carry games than boy-band videos, though it's probably the only bar in Chicagoland where they might switch from the Cubs mid-inning to golf. Fittingly, the food is Korean as interpreted for a tailgate party. I defy anyone to resist a heaping mound of tots loaded with kimchi, melted cheddar, and bulgogi. Similarly, the bulgogi burger—beef on top of beef, with lettuce, tomato, cheddar, and doenjang—is the sloppy umami monster of your dreams. Over-the-top interpretations of fried chicken are a given at most of these places, but BDG's is surprisingly conservative compared to most—light, crispy, and barely battered.

On the other hand, the chicken at Glenview's Ju Rang Fusion Grill (611 Milwaukee, Glenview, 847-657-7200) is in a class by itself. It's all baked, though you might not be able to tell from the wings, jacketed in an intensely corny, subtly spicy crust that's reminiscent of Shake 'N Bake—you won't believe they're not fried. Besides the wings, the chicken in sticky garlic sauce, tossed with whole roasted garlic cloves and chewy rice cakes, is one of the best things you can eat on this KBC. Ju Rang is among the spiffiest of the K-bars, with karaoke rooms, billiards tables, and private booths where no one can shame you as you spoon up imitation crab and corn covered in molten cheese, a relatively deluxe version of this trashy snack, which appears in most of the bars on the circuit. It's the best kind of bar food for benders.  v

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