Vegans are purists when it comes to their vegetables. Vegetable pots are for cooking vegetables, and--this being an imperfect world--meat pots are used when other people are cooking meat, and never the twain shall meet. So when the Lakeview restaurant Amitabul changed its name to Far Eastern Barbecue in June and added meat to the menu, its vegan fans wondered what was going on. Had chef Dave Choi--who owned the restaurant with his brother, his sister, and her husband--traded in his vegetarian roots? Had he succumbed to the red-hot restaurant competition by serving meat?
Not at all. Choi wouldn't consider the idea of serving meat. But he was worn out from running three restaurants. So in the tradition of a family in which restaurants have been changing hands and menus for decades, Choi and his brother Bill bowed out of their ownership of the restaurant at 3418 N. Southport and moved their vegan menu to a new location far north on Milwaukee.
Choi first moved to Chicago from southern California in 1984, to help his sister run Jim's Grill on Irving Park Road, then a hot dog joint. Jim's had originally been opened by Choi's cousin Jim, who gave it to his brother, who handed it over to his cousin, who gave it to Choi's aunt, who then gave it to her niece. After Choi took over the kitchen, he gradually introduced a mostly vegetarian menu that included some meat. His dream, though, was a completely vegan place, and in 1995 Choi and his siblings opened Amitabul.
The vegan menu turned a profit. However, this being Chicago, parking became a problem. As parking restrictions mounted near Wrigley Field, business got tight; Cubs games brought walk-in traffic in search of hot dogs and other meat, while many of Amitabul's regulars couldn't find spaces for their cars. A few of the partners wanted to add meat to the menu. For Choi, that was unthinkable. "Vegan cooking is my trademark," he says.
Meanwhile, he was working six days a week in Madison starting up another restaurant, called Cafe One Heart. But the commuting and the hours took their toll, and Choi closed Cafe One Heart after less than a year. Then he resigned his supervisory role at the Irving Park diner. Finally, Choi and his brother gave their share of the Southport restaurant over to their sister and opened the new Amitabul. Now everybody is happily cooking in his own pot.
The new place is peaceful. While Milwaukee Avenue traffic whizzes by, the stereo plays kayagum (zither) music. The kitchen rings monastic-style jong (bells) to alert the staff when food is ready. Paper lanterns cast a soft light on the Korean landscape paintings and mint green walls. A fountain flows softly in an alcove to the side.
In the dining room Choi advises a group of businessmen to stay in balance with cooling foods (like cold noodle soup) in the summer and warming foods (like kimchi soup) in the winter. A few minutes later he puts together a special carryout soup for a cancer patient who is not yet able to eat solid foods. Meanwhile, another customer calls to say his wife has just given birth--what should she be eating? "Miso and seaweed, with lots of soup for the milk," Choi tells him. "Good nutrition--that's the best medicine."
Choi's interest in healing came out of his work with Master Bupchon, a Korean Buddhist with whom he's studied cooking, meditation, and healing for years. She also taught him to arm wrestle. "She's a master," Choi says, "and masters are masters of everything." Amitabul means "awakening," and Choi's menu focuses on "awakening foods": whole, unprocessed foods, "steam stir-fried" without oil to retain their nutrients. The result: lots of crunch and flavor, without the fat--"hot salad," he says. The spice comes mainly from sauces, curries, and a variety of herbs.
Choi still offers many dishes from the old Amitabul: Chef D & B's Famous Bi Bim Bop, Nine Ways to Nirvana (whole wheat noodle soup with miso), Dr. K's Cure-All (a spicy noodle soup). But now he's added Tibetan dishes to the menu. Hello Dolly and Dave is a marriage of Tibetan curry and Korean vegetables--turnips, red and yellow peppers, shiitake mushrooms, and cauliflower, among others--sprinkled with black sesame seeds and garnished with shredded daikon. Tibetan High Noon is a smooth golden noodle dish, mixing whole wheat noodles and Korean vegetables with a warm Tibetan curry that includes cinnamon, basil, and ginger. It's sprinkled with sesame oil.
Dishes are available mild, medium, or spicy, and last-minute adjustments can be made using the two squeeze bottles of sauce on the table: In the red bottle is Choi's "somewhat secret" miso sauce, fermented from brown rice and peppery hot with cayenne. In the yellow bottle is a plum sauce. The two, somehow, go together and keep each other in check. If you're not used to inhaling cayenne, take care with the red.
Missing from the new menu is Dave's Special, whereby customers could custom order a dish: "Dave, make me something medium spicy with a few mandoo and energy sticks." Choi took the special off the menu because too many requests caused a pileup in the kitchen. You can still ask for Dave's Special, though, and he'll reroute the traffic.
Portions are hefty, with enough left over for a second meal. Amitabul does not serve alcohol, but you can bring your own beer or wine. Choi asks you to bring the receipt, though--in case the city asks any questions about who bought what where.
Amitabul is at 6207 N. Milwaukee, 773-774-0276.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.