Starter-kit Korean at Chinatown's Ahjoomah's Apron

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kimchi pancake, Ahjoomahs Apron
When I was in Korea, the only time I ever heard the word ajumma was late at night in bars, when it was barked out by drunken salarymen in the direction of harried older women, followed by an order for more food or soju. It took me a long time before I could be convinced that it wasn't (necessarily) a rude way to address someone. It isn't. Unless it is. It usually refers to married women, typically of middle age, and there's a whole set of stereotypical attributes associated with it: short perms, baggy pants, loud blouses, sensible shoes, blunt speech, no-nonsense attitude, working-class job.

Would you address someone this way? Lots of people do, and I've witnessed lots of the so-addressed not bat an eye (including my mother-in-law). And now there's a new Korean restaurant in Chinatown that's appropriated the term, pairing it with a cutesy cartoon logo of what appears to be very unajumma-like little girl in a traditional hanbok, serving up something in a pot.

Apart from that, Ahjoomah's Apron is significant for the fact that it's the only Korean restaurant in Chinatown (perhaps the only one on the south side), and as such it adopts a tone that most Korean restaurants that operate outside the orbit of a significant population of Koreans adopt. It operates under the assumption that most people will have no idea what they're doing when they walk in. So the walls of the bright, modern rehauling of the old Emerald City feature blow-up English texts on the basics of Korean food if, say, you need a history lesson on kimchi or bulgogi or pajeon.

stir fried squid and pork, Ahjoomahs Apron
  • Mike Sula
  • Stir-fried squid and pork, Ahjoomah's Apron

The basics are reflected on the menu too: there's no barbecue, no kimchi tacos (or parathas), no cross-cultural hybrids or highly specialized dishes. It's just straightforward traditional Korean food, spanning familiar soups, stir-fries, and hot pots (including the infamous Korean War relic budae jongol, bubbling with Spam and hot dogs). The soondubu chigae is thick with bubbling tofu, and the stir-fried squid with pork is spicy and saucy if a bit too sweet, which is more than true of the chap chae, whose sweet-potato noodles taste like they were dipped in Nutrasweet.

The half-dozen gratis panchan—kimchi, fish cakes, black beans, soy-glazed potatoes, and pickled radish—seem a little skimpy, but they're fresh and continually replenished by a superfriendly and attentive staff that includes at least one very sweet ajumma. It's starter-kit Korean, but still a welcome addition to Chinatown's ever-diversifying options.

Ahjoomah's Apron, 218 W. Cermak, 312-326-2800, ahjoomahchicago.com

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