Introducing . . . *five-dollar lunches | Bleader

Introducing . . . *five-dollar lunches


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Disregard if you have a stronger stomach than I do.
Chicago newcomer and blogger Gwynedd Stuart loves to eat out, but she also happens to be a poor person because she's a Chicago newcomer and a blogger. In this weekly feature she seeks out affordable midday meals that don't exceed five bucks (*actually seven, with tax and tip).

I don't have a problem with foods that stink. Aw, look. I'm lying. I do have a problem with foods that stink, but I guess what I'm saying is that stink is subjective, and I've definitely eaten and enjoyed foods (cheeses and organ meats, in particular) that other people consider inedible. Our senses of smell and taste are inextricably linked for evolutionary reasons, so most people tend to prefer foods that have a pleasant smell, i.e., those that don't smell like a thousand wet feet that've been trapped in vinyl shoes for days.

The subjectivity of smell is on full olfactory display at the lunch counter in Joong Boo Market on Kimball Avenue. For the most part, the place smells fantastic—umami for the nostrils—but after ordering at the register and taking a seat at a low, faux-wood counter, I noticed a sign warning the uninitiated about several ingredients that might not smell or taste so great to certain (or most) people, specifically beef bones, tripe, honeycomb, and fermented soybean. "It will have a very unique and distinct taste and smell that is foreign to many," the sign says of the three dishes that contain these ingredients. "Some have a hard time adjusting to its taste and smell." Then there's the real disclaimer (and I'm paraphrasing): if you already ordered any of these things and you don't like it, tough tits because you're not getting your money back.

I kind of laughed at the sign—mostly because I hadn't ordered the chung gook jang, the dwen jang ji gae, or the sul long tang—but also because I've had tripe and bone marrow . . . and isn't the soybean stuff just tofu?

No. No, it's not just tofu. That thing I said about a thousand feet trapped in shoes—this is what I was talking about. But judging by the number of times I caught a whiff while we were eating our kal gook soo ($5.50) and tuk bok kee ($5), respectively, it's as popular as it is pungent. In fact, Andrew Zimmern recently filmed a segment at Joong Boo and particularly loved the fermented soy curd (though his job is basically eating things that are disgusting).

It's all part of the experience of eating at Joong Boo (or Chicago Food Snack, as they call their lunch counter) and didn't detract from the food in front of us.

At $5.50, the kal gook soo is an enormous amount of food. Joong Boo's version is a vegetable and noodle, egg-drop-like soup that comes with a side of spicy kimchi. My problem with egg-white-and-chicken-broth soups when you get them from crappy take-out places is they're almost always unbearably salty. Not the case here at all. Really mild flavor and loads of chewy noodles. We tried to put the portion size in perspective by holding a quarter next to it, because we're morons.

My dining (and living and sleeping) companion got the tuk bok kee, which was also lots of food for five bucks. This was described as "spicy rice cake and vegi. served in a tasty spice sauce." The best way I can explain the rice cakes is to say they're chewy, squishy tubes of rice dough. Almost chewy enough to pass as a gelatin-based candy if they were covered in granulated sugar, but not quite. If that sounds off-putting, it's my fault, because they were actually great in the spicy red sauce, sprinkled with scallions and nutty, toasted sesame seeds.


Fourteen of the items on Joong Boo's 22-item menu are $6.50 or cheaper, which is especially great considering the portion size. And they have a water dispenser and plastic cups, so you don't have to feel like a cheap a-hole for not ordering a drink with your meal (drinks are such a luxury in the under-seven-dollar-lunch world).

And who knows. Maybe if I continue to visit I'll get used to the soy-curd stink and try out one of the forbidden three dishes sometime. But I kind of doubt it.


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