Korean joint Hal Mae Bo Ssam serves up funky, briny, porky goodness

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bo ssam, Hal Mae Bo Ssam

For anyone who's ever eaten Korean barbecue bo ssam is not an unfamiliar delivery system. Literally meaning "wrapped," it also refers to a particular dish—a feast, actually—particularly if soju is involved. Typically, bo ssam is sliced and boiled pork belly served with raw oysters, kimchi, and raw cabbage or lettuce. You pick up a piece of greenery, tuck in some pork, an oyster, a scrap of kimchi, and perhaps add a smear of doenjang, or bean base—or a dab of fermented shrimp sauce—before bundling it up and shoveling it in your pie hole.

David Chang popularized it at Momofuku, serving a glazed and slow-cooked pork shoulder in place of the belly. I subbed in Chang's bo ssam recipe for turkey one year at Thanksgiving and I guess everyone was too busy demolishing it to complain.

But you don't often see bo ssam served in restaurants around here, and perhaps that's because the market is cornered by a suburban specialist. Hal Mae Bo Ssam is located in an unassuming Morton Grove strip mall storefront that doesn't even mention its name in English. It's even more counterintuitive that the sign does advertise Korean barbecue because, while you can order that or a whole bunch of other things, all anyone ever seems to eat there is bo ssam and its natural ally gamjatang, or pork-neck soup.

Gamjatang, Hal Mae Bo Ssam

At some point in its lifetime Hal Mae Bo Ssam stopped including oysters in the package even though they're clearly listed on the menu. Either way it's a formidable platter of food for $26.95—the glistening, warm belly slices spread out like playing cards across from a twin stack of crisp Napa cabbage, a pile of raw jalapenos and sliced garlic cloves to the side. A saucy, spicy bowl of radish strips, or musaengchae, sits in the middle, and to the side are small bowls of deonjang and house-made saeujeot, a pickled, fermented shrimp sauce made with tiny crustaceans that look a bit like sea monkeys. Put together properly it all makes for an intense mouthful of crisp greenery and fatty, funky, briny, porky goodness.

You can't eat bo ssam without gamjatang and at Hal Mae it's not so much a soup as a heaping pile of fall off-the-bone pork neck bones, sprinkled in nutty perilla seeds, taking a dip in a minimal amount of brick-red broth, a bit like the pozole at Dove's Luncheonette ($24.95 for two). Of course you can't consume either of these things without proper lubrication, so Hal Mae offers four kinds of soju, two varieties of Korean lager, the herbal rice wine known as baekseju, and another, the sweet, syrupy sansachun.

Say konbae!

Hal Mae Bo Ssam, Morton Grove

Hal Mae Bo Ssam, 9412 Waukegan Road, Morton Grove, 847-470-1914

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